PBS Filmmakers Discuss ‘Zora Neal Hurston: Claiming a Space’

Zora Neale Hurston may have been buried in an unmarked grave when she died in 1960, but she star has risenposthumously, since Alice Walker brought them back into public consciousness in the late 1970s. Hurston’s masterful 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a staple on college reading lists. Her name has appeared on television series from The Sopranos to Godfather of Harlem. It is widely regarded as Pioneer of Black Feminism. And now she’s the subject of a new PBS documentary, “American Experience,”Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a room‘ which premieres Tuesday on PBS and will be available on PBS.org thereafter.

She is viewed largely through the lens of her fiction, particularly Eyes, the story of a young woman striving for authenticity and independence alongside romantic love. But as the new film makes clear, Hurston’s work as an anthropologist was at least as important as her literary work. Hurston traveled the South alone in a Nash coupe, gun at his hip, in the 1920s, collecting songs, folk tales and life stories from black communities that were seldom seen or heard. At a time when anthropology was widely viewed as the study of the other, Hurston immersed herself in the lives of her own people.

“I thought I knew everything I needed to know about her,” says Cameo George, the film’s executive producer. “But she did have a definite impact on anthropology and how we study other cultures, and certainly African-American culture. When you understand that and think back to the books you’ve read by her, you really see that anthropology is an integral part of her literary voice.”

On the first page of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston writes: “It was the time to sit on porches by the road. It was the time to hear things and to talk.” That’s exactly what the author did as a kid growing up Eatonville, Fla., one of the oldest black incorporated communities in the United States. As the film shows, young Hurston hung out on the porch of the town’s general store, listening to stories big and small. They would have to shoo them away when it was time to close. Hurston loved people and she loved their stories. One day she would make it her calling to collect them and weave their tenor into her writing.

“At one point in her life, she was considered the leading authority on black folklore,” says the film’s director, Tracy Heather Strain. “She had taken it upon herself to travel south, face a multitude of dangers, connect with communities, and collect folklore, stories, and religious practices because she realized it was meaningful, beautiful, and just one thing Piece of the puzzle to combat the idea that black people have no culture.”

The film benefits from another tool Hurston had at his disposal. She undertook some of her explorations under the auspices of Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy socialite and philanthropist who happily funded Harlem Renaissance artists—on her strict terms, which included accurate accounting of every penny. Mason’s money paid for a film camera that Hurston used to capture her subjects at work and at play. This footage is used throughout the documentary.

“She’s probably our earliest black ethnographic filmmaker,” says Strain, who also teaches documentary history at Wesleyan University. “We benefit from seeing these beautiful images of African Americans in the South, country people doing their thing. You have children and adults. It was a real pleasure working with this material and trying to incorporate it into the documentary as much as possible.”

Hurston’s life was no easier than that of many of her subjects. Her mother died when she was 13, sparking a period of aimlessness and grief. But she was resourceful. Hurston shaved her age by ten years, eventually graduating from high school and going to Howard University. She found her way to New York where she attended Barnard College, with whom she became close friends Langston Hughes (they later had a bad argument) and studied with Columbia University’s Franz Boas, widely considered the father of American anthropology. But while she hungered for education, academic rigor rarely suited her, and her methods, ahead of their time, struck many university gatekeepers as too unorthodox.

Hurston plays with children in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida during a recording expedition in June 1935.

Hurston plays with children in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida during a recording expedition in June 1935.

(Library of Congress)

“Eyes,” Hurston’s literary breakthrough, received critical acclaim but came under attack from black male critics in particular Richard Wright, who wrote that the book had “no theme, no message, no thought”. (Wright received some compensation when James Baldwin confronted “Native Son” in the essay Everyone’s Protest Novel.) Hurston wrote in a rich colloquial language and achieved her own brand of authenticity. But she was also uncompromisingly rural at a time when, in many circles, “real” was equated with “urban” – and anything outside of that was a consolation to old clichés.

“Wright wanted to dismiss what Hurston saw as authenticity as catering to white people or part of a minstrel technique,” says Strain.

She ended up suffering the fate of runaway and innovator, doubly marginalized by the sexism and racism of her day. In her later years she worked as a maid and joked that it was part of her research. she died alone in a Nursing home. It was not until Walker wrote the essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” (later titled “In search of Zora“) in woman magazine In 1975, Hurston’s personal renaissance began.

Decades later, anyone searching for Hurston should prepare to meet a complex woman. She openly criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. “When Brown comes out, her point is, ‘I don’t want to have to force anyone to deal with me,'” says Strain. Today you would probably call her a libertarian.

But the filmmakers insist that their importance cannot be captured by labels and that their driving principle – love for their people – would be a tremendous asset today.

“She’s the ultimate booster of African Americans and African American culture,” says George. “In recent years we’ve seen a political landscape where black people felt they actually had to say their lives matter because on many corners it felt like it was up for debate. She was one of those people who said, “This is not up for debate, and black lives matter, black culture matters, and we should all respect that, enjoy it, and embrace that.” I think that makes them as relevant today as they were in their day.”

“Zoran Neale Hurston: Claiming a Room”

Where from: PBS

When: 9pm Tuesday

stream: On PBS.org as of Tuesday evening

Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-01-17/how-a-new-film-captured-zora-neale-hurstons-radical-authenticity PBS Filmmakers Discuss ‘Zora Neal Hurston: Claiming a Space’

Sarah Ridley

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