One of the best documentaries that I’ve screened so far this year is “Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space” directed by Tracy Heather Strain (“Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart”). At first glance, perhaps you might think this is all academic and no heart, and you would be wrong.
Strain made it clear in telling the story of Zora Neale Hurston that her journey reflects how the world works now. It’s rather heartbreaking, to be frank, to realize that not much has changed since the 1930s for African Americans and other non-white people. To say that Hurston was a trailblazer is not getting to the deepest part of her roots. She was a bigger-than-life figure who accomplished amazing things despite the gigantic obstacles that were part of being a female and African American.
Hurston believed that by studying anthropology, she could fight the stereotypes and celebrate the richness of Black culture. The leading experts in that field (all white and mostly male) didn’t care about learning about our strengths. They wanted to use evidence to suggest that our people were less than and inferior. Hurston knew better and worked with a slim safety net to prove the truth.
What Hurston learned, quickly, is that culturally, our people are in constant motion and are wary of letting in strangers — even strangers who are clearly African American. But it was her “proper language,” sounding more like a white woman, that initially kept her from getting close. In a series of eureka moments, she finally realized that to learn, total immersion was the only key to unlocking those stories. When Hurston did so, she emerged with the raw materials she formed into her greatest work. To say that Hurston suffered for her art is an understatement of gigantic proportions.
In this beautifully crafted documentary, we learn of Hurston’s close connection to Eatonville, Florida, where she grew up — one of the first incorporated all-African-American towns in the United States. It was established by newly freed slaves. Growing up, she listened to the stories that were told in the general store or on their porches.
It took her a long time to earn her education, going to night school and then entering the Morgan Academy (in Baltimore), followed by the Howard Academy (in Washington). After she received her high school degree, she entered Howard University, followed by Barnard College in New York City. Her passion was learning about her people. And it was at Barnard she met Franz Boas, one of the leaders of the cultural anthropology movement and a teacher at Columbia.
All these adventures and observations helped her shape her novel — “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” incorporating characters she had known growing up and providing those rich descriptions that set her writing apart from others.
There are many people in this world who have never heard about Zora Neale Hurston, and Strain’s film does a pitch-perfect job of introducing us to this dynamic woman in all of her humiliations and complexities. For those who do know about her, this film gives us much more to chew on, so to speak.
Despite creating an American literary classic, her own life was a battle from day one. There’s more of her writing to learn from and enjoy, including: “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’” and “You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays.”
Director/writer/producer Tracy Heather Strain, the president and co-founder of the Film Posse, is an award-winning filmmaker. Strain directed, wrote, and produced “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” her feature documentary about Lorraine Hansberry, which made its television debut on American Masters and won a Peabody Award, an NAACP Image Award for Motion Picture Directing (Television), and the American Historical Association’s John E. O’Connor Award.
A two-time Emmy-nominated filmmaker, Strain’s other directing and producing credits include “When the Bough Breaks” for the duPont Columbia Award-winning series “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?” and “The Story We Tell” for “Race: The Power of an Illusion.” She directed, wrote, and produced “Bright Like a Sun” and “The Dream Keepers” for Blackside’s six-part series “I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African American Art,” which won a Peabody Award and Organization of American Historians Erik Barnouw Award.
Strain’s other American Experience credits include producer/director of “Building the Alaska Highway”; writer/director/producer of “American Oz”; producer of “Silicon Valley”; and coordinating producer of “The Feud,” “The Swamp,” “The Battle of Chosin,” “The Mine Wars,” and “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.”
Strain is the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University.
Here’s what “Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space” director Tracy Heather Strain had to share about the experience of making the documentary that premiered on PBS on Jan. 17.
AMSTERDAM NEWS: In your opinion, how did Zora Neal Hurston’s life affect how we live today?
TRACY HEATHER STRAIN: One thing I found very interesting about making the film is how much hasn’t changed since the 1930s for African Americans and minoritized people. Hurston wrote at a time when most images of African Americans were demeaning, and so she decided that anthropology was a way to fight the stereotypes and celebrate the richness of the culture. Black culture is not set in amber, not stuck in time. Her work addresses modernity and recognizes that folklore, for example, is made and remade.
AMN: I didn’t know much about Zora Neale Hurston before watching “Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space.” Do you think that will work against the film finding an audience?
THS: For people who never heard of Zora Neale Hurston, this film is an introduction to an unsung hero.
AMN: That’s the word: hero. She’s not a fictional sidekick character from a Marvel movie, but what she did would qualify.
THS: For those familiar with her fiction, this documentary provides greater context and information about the challenges of her life.
AMN: I had no idea what it took for her to create her masterpiece.
THS: Her life was very challenging and did not end so well. Zora Neale Hurston’s work enables us to look at Black culture with new eyes.
AMN: That’s certainly true from my experience in viewing the documentary. Excellent, excellent, excellent work.
“Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming A Space” airs on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video app.
This has been edited for length and clarity.
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