In her wonderful essay “Looking for Zora,” Alice Walker reports on a visit to a weed-grown, snake-infested Florida cemetery, looking for the unmarked grave of the novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, and calling out in frustration: “Zora! I’m here. Are you?” I felt like calling out the same thing after sitting still for this reverential adaptation of Hurston’s remarkable novel. Halle Berry was a fine—maybe even an inevitable—choice to play the part of Janie Crawford, growing up through three marriages to a surprising selfhood in the Everglades. Equally shrewd was casting Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Joe Starks, mayor of the all-black township of Eatonville, and Michael Ealy as Tea Cake, who introduces Janie to sexual pleasure. Ruby Dee is the grandmother anyone would want. Suzan-Lori Parks seems ideally suited to turn the novel into a screenplay. And the hurricane is terrific.
But the novel had another kind of weather, altogether omitted here, and that was language, for which there should have been some film equivalent besides the periodic immersions of Halle in metaphorically baptismal waters. And while I can understand leaving out the courtroom scenes, a modern version of Their Eyes should have felt itself obliged to reconsider Hurston’s odd complacency about male violence. Yes, the book was a classic, deserving better than it got in 1937, especially from critics like Richard Wright who should have known better. But being too respectful means embalming.