by Jeanne Le
Based on the novel by Zora Neale Hurston, the 2005 film Their Eyes Were Watching God, directed by Darnell Martin and produced by Oprah Winfrey, revolves around the life of a young African American woman named Janie, who goes through many marriages post-Civil War in order to find her own idea of love and self-acceptance. Because of her grandmother’s old-fashioned views and her husbands’ sexist ideals, Janie struggles to embrace herself and settles for others’ expectations, which are constructed by past social status. Although African Americans during the time period were free, the principles of slavery still affected community and individual identities. Therefore, in the movie, many of the other characters stick to tradition, and many of the towns are underdeveloped. Meanwhile, Janie is on a journey to deviate from the influence of those around her, despite negative judgement, to grow into her own skin. Ironically, Janie’s partners, Logan Killicks, Jody Starks, and Tea Cake, are confident; they are portrayed as self-starters who build up not only themselves, but their communities as well. Unlike the people around them, they know exactly what role they play and who they are. Until she learns to accept herself, the strong and independent men contrast moldable Janie. Although the film takes place in the past, remnants of slavery still affect how the public views black communities and identities, similarly to modern-day society. Thus, through themes of love and acceptance, the 21st-century rendition of Their Eyes Were Watching God connects the antebellum past to the present-day–even after slavery has been abolished.
Historical and Cultural Context
The film is set in the early 1900s–right after the Civil War. Thus, there were Jim Crow Laws in place that segregated African Americans from white Americans, affecting where their communities grew. For example, in the movie, Eatonville, an all-black community, was extremely underdeveloped compared to the prosperous plantations and cities that white Americans lived in. Due to racism stemming from slavery, it was difficult for black communities to set up and prosper, which is shown in the film before Jody arrives to Eatonville. He notes that even though it has been a year since its founding, Eatonville is unable to grow significantly. As he tries to pick the town up off its feet, the townspeople laugh at the thought of a white proprietor giving them money to build a town. In the movie, it seems miraculous to the community that Jody can even ensure funding. Similarly, today, African Americans are “left out of… new suburban communities” (Gross). “Redlining” from the early 1900s furthered segregation by preventing insurance in and near African American neighborhoods. Because most families gain wealth from equity in homes, African Americans that were prevented from buying homes “gained none of the equity appreciation that whites gained” (Gross). Furthermore, because African Americans were viewed as second-class citizens, many people found themselves with little options but to do manual labor. For example, Tea Cake and Janie flee to Orlando and then to the Everglades, where they plant and harvest beans. With lack of a developed community with opportunities, many African Americans stuck with what they knew. Therefore, laws that stemmed from slavery affected black communities through the time period of the movie to the modern day.
Additionally, during the time period, women also had few rights, which is shown through Janie’s submissive nature and others’ expectations of her. Her husbands have control, and marriage is based on the amount of wealth that men have. For example, Nanny forces Janie to marry Logan Killicks, who could care less about love, because he has 60 acres of land and wealth. Additionally, although Janie ends up wealthy after Jody’s death, Tea Cake insists that if “he had nothing, [Janie would] have nothing” in order to assert his control (Martin). Although she agrees, the quote shows the patriarchal nature of society at the time–when men were expected to be the breadwinners. Even after women’s rights and the 19th Amendment, women were still expected to be submissive to their husbands, and black women especially were not allowed the same freedoms until much later (Ashley).
Finally, the film is based upon Hurston’s novel, written during the Harlem Renaissance–the peak of African American culture in America at the time. Throughout her life, Hurston had a “desire for education” and fostered a “deep commitment to African-American cultural production” (Zeiser). Her research and stories played a large role in the Harlem Renaissance, and she became more widely known throughout New York. However, she was less known in the South, and eventually, although she continued to live as an editor, she never published another book after Their Eyes Were Watching God, leading to her obscurity. After her death, Alice Walker and other scholars worked to “rescue [Hurston] from the dustbin of American literature” and brought her novel into the canon (Zeiser). Although the novel did not win any awards, the film was nominated for a few awards, such as the Golden Globes.
Themes and Styles
The director makes many stylistic choices within the film, such as zooming in on certain characters’ faces or objects, such as Janie when she stares at the pear tree, which reinforces the importance of the themes represented. Zooming in focuses on the detail and forces the audience to focus on what the director considers important. For example, because the pear tree represents Janie’s sexual realization, the focus on the bee and the pear tree emerges as a theme of love. The bee pollinates the pear tree, which helps it bloom–just as Janie is blooming from an adolescent to an adult. Furthermore, as Janie argues with Nanny about love, the camera focuses on their argument, abruptly cutting after Nanny slaps her across the face and hugs her in apology, which represents the abrupt end of Janie’s adolescent view on marriage. Nanny’s slap represents the abrupt change in Janie’s reality; she must mature and bury her idealizations of love. Nanny’s old-fashioned views on marriage stem from the difficulties of love during slavery; families were often separated and marriages were difficult to keep. To her, love is about sustainability and survival, but Janie wants to truly feel the emotions associated with marriage. Through her three different partnerships, the audience sees Janie either constricted or free, but always submissive. To this day, many black women are expected to be submissive to their husbands, an ideal that roots from the lack of women’s rights in the past and further lack of African American women’s rights. Love in the 21st century is still based partially on the idea of survival, as many people consider finances and property before marriage.
Finally, a second theme that emerges from the movie is identity. Oftentimes, Janie has to mold to those around her. Although she is allowed to dress the way she likes around her first husband, Logan, he is much older and keeps her restricted through the work she has to do. When Joe meets her at the edge of Logan’s farm, she runs off with him the next day in search of freedom. However, when Joe becomes the mayor of Eatonville, she is again restricted by her head wrap and the clothes he forces her to wear.
When he passes away, she is again free to let her hair go. Therefore, Janie’s hair is a symbol of her identity and freedom. When it isn’t tied up or wrapped up, Janie is free to carry herself. Additionally, her clothes can be seen as a symbol of her identity, as she is forced to be submissive and feminine until she meets Tea Cake. When they move to the Everglades, she begins to dress in overalls and helps him in the fields.
Even when she returns to Eatonville after his death, she is unwavering and refuses to dress how the community expects her to. Janie comes back in overalls and her hair let loose, symbolizing her new self-acceptance. An important scene that represents Janie’s self-discovery is the scene where she floats in the water with her eyes closed and her hair loose in a white dress. The stylistic choice of white clothing represents freedom, and her submergence in water represents her self-acceptance. Relaxed and free, Janie embraces herself as the water embraces her.
Like Janie’s struggle for self-discovery, many members of the African American struggle fighting stereotypes and molds today to create their own identity. For example, many African American women are still expected to be submissive to their husbands, and as Malcolm X says, “the most disrespected woman in America is the black woman.” Their identities are dangerously publicized and stereotyped by words, such as “the angry black woman” or “ratchet” (Ashley). Thus, just like many of the people in Eatonville were afraid to break out of the identities constructed by society back then, many people today still struggle to break out of the identities crafted by institutional racism.
Because the film addresses many issues that have stemmed from slavery, many critics have connected its themes, such as love, representation of the black community, and discrimination to modern day society. In her article, Tracy Bealer discusses the underrepresentation of healthy African American love in modern day society. Like many of Janie’s relationships, modern day love in the black community is unable to “reliably satisfy” both partners due to racism and sexism (Bealer). Like Janie, many women today face difficulties trying to foster relationships that thrive in a society that works against them. Adding to the idea of female identity, Keiko Dilbeck suggests that the pack mule, a familiar pack animal, represents the societal pressures of the time, as women were expected to do work and obey men. She also extends the idea of ethnic identity, femininity, and freedom to Janie’s hair. Ethnic identity extends to the modern day “black world” and “white world” (Hunton). Because of past racial divides, African Americans struggle to find real love as they attempt to escape from the “prism” of color and break out of society’s stereotypes.
Other themes that have been discussed in various journals include the perception of the African American community in the book as it relates to the 21st century. Through “public blackness,” or how the media portrays black people, culture and expressiveness changes within the community, such as resistance movements for equality (Quashie). He presents themes, such as “doubleness,” which means multiple perceived identities, and “masking,” which is suppressing or hiding identity. In society, “doubleness” is seen in the way that black men are perceived within and outside of their community. They may be seen by their families as hardworking or loving, but by police, they may be seen as dangerous. Similarly, African American men “mask” their identity to shield themselves from police brutality, such as avoiding wearing hoodies. Both themes emerge in the film through Janie’s many marriages. For example, Phoebe remarks that Janie has changed upon her return to Eatonville, although Janie insists that she is the same person. Because she presents herself differently to different people prior to her self-discovery, it seems as though she has two identities: the mayor’s widow and a foolish, wild woman when she is with Tea Cake. While she is married to Jody, Janie “masks” her identity–she is forced to hide who she really is, concealing her hair and body. Similarly, modern day representation of class, gender, and ethnicity have “destructive influence” on the development of the black community, especially in the south (Sorensen). Identities are often “doubled” or “masked.” For example, black men within the community may be seen as hardworking and loving husbands, while the police may perceive the same men as a threat.
Furthermore, gender inequality and discrimination has evolved from the past to affect the way that African Americans, especially women, are perceived from within and outside the community. Therefore, Oprah, as the producer, and Halle Berry, as Janie, bring different and diverse representation to the table, since their roles as African American women bring important lenses in the black community to light. By having women play a large role in the film’s development, black women are seen as positive leaders, creating an atmosphere for black female empowerment.
All in all, many of the problems in the African American community, such as gender discrimination, police brutality or systematic racism, result from the ideals of slavery. Even in the modern day, different forms of slavery continue to exist 100 years after its abolishment.
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Gross, Terry. “A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America.” NPR, NPR, 3 May 2017, www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america.
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Zora Neale Hurston
African American community