We should be so lucky as Oprah. She’s richer than Croesus, beloved by people of all hues, and seems to have most of Hollywood on speed dial. We hear she’s even got her own book club — which is why it’s surprising that her latest print-to-TV adaptation gets lost in translation.
Winfrey exec-produced Their Eyes Were Watching God (based on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel of the same name), starring Halle Berry as Janie, a woman-child of milky complexion and glorious hair (so long! so pretty!). That hair should get its own billing, so effectively is it used as a metaphor for sex?tightly bound and controlled with spouse Joe (Lackawanna Blues‘ Ruben Santiago-Hudson), free and wild during her scandalous affair with true love Tea Cake (Barbershop‘s Michael Ealy). It’s at Tea Cake’s introduction that the movie gets hot — tongue-flicking, shock-the-town hot — as Berry and Ealy show off their college-level chemistry (fitting, given they’re rumored to be a real-life item). Call it a romance, pure and simple.
Except that Hurston’s novel is about impurity at its most complex. Janie is the inevitable mélange of sex and slavery: a child so racially confused she believes she’s white until almost age 6. Pages are devoted to the strain her ethnic ambiguity puts on her relationships — nearly a whole chapter given over to a black friend’s vicious rant against darker African Americans. It’s the inheritance of slavery’s color-coded caste system, a shameful chapter in African-American history.
One that, for some reason, Winfrey and the film’s talented black crew — including TV director Darnell Martin and writer Suzan-Lori Parks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog — manage to avoid entirely. Winfrey (Oscar nominee for The Color Purple, a film with its own racial complications) and Berry (exec producer of Lackawanna Blues) are usually so true to their self-imposed responsibility to tell the stories of African Americans that this literary cop-out is as confusing as it is disappointing. They owe Hurston more.
The result: Eyes is reduced to toothless entertainment. The all-star cast — among them Terrence Howard, Lorraine Toussaint, and Ruby Dee as Janie’s grandma — is solid, as is Berry, who appears to relish her proto-flower child role. And frankly, she’s never looked better — perfectly cast as a woman whose beauty is so overpowering, it’s almost a liability. And that hair: So long! So pretty!