Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Performative Visual Anthropology Films of Zora Neale Hurston

Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Performative Visual Anthropology Films of Zora Neale Hurston

Article excerpt

The spirit of innovation characterizes the work of Zora Neale Hurston, in both film and in the literary arts. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Zora Neale Hurston developed fluency in an astounding number of fields, from playwright, novelist to performer, folklorist, and anthropologist. Historically, the political climate in both the arts and intellectual worlds kept her from earning the recognition she so deserved during her lifetime. Fortunately, she has posthumously gained this recognition through the reissue of her diverse writings, the staging of plays by and about her, and in the writings of contemporary authors such as Alice Walker. Her literary work is currently being reexamined, and in the light of contemporary scholarship has been widely acclaimed both critically and for its moving celebration of African-American life.

In addition to extolling Hurston's contribution to the literary and performing arts and the humanities, recent scholarship reveals that she played a pioneering role in another field--filmmaking. While on her second expedition to collect folklore in the rural South, Zora Neale Hurston took motion pictures, many of which survive today. These films are the basis for an analysis of Hurston's contribution to the early history of visual anthropology and performance studies. As Fatimah Tobing Rony makes clear, "Hurston used film not only to create a historical record, but also as a means to participate in and transmit to others the ongoing artistry of the highly visual world of black culture in which Hurston was involved" (207).

The discovery of these films is significant for many reasons. From a historical perspective the footage is rare and unique. Few people actually documented daily performative acts in the life of Central and Southern Florida in the late 1920s--particularly life in rural, African-American communities. It is important to note that the films under discussion are quite short. They range in length from about ten seconds to three minutes (which was the maximum length of early film rolls). Some of the longer performative sequences include children dancing and playing games, adults preparing a barbecue, and an outdoor baptism in Miami, Florida. One of the most stunning sequences includes what may be some of the only existing film footage of a logging and turpentine camp in neighboring Polk County, shot in 1928. In addition to their historic value, these surviving films are significant in illustrating Zora Neale Hurston's creative process. In contrast to many amateur films from the 1920s, which are marked by their static quality, Hurston's footage is distinguished by its broad range in style and composition. In some cases she uses the camera to record an activity. In other cases she engages the apparatus as an extension of her person, creating documents that have a participatory feel.

The fact that Zora Neale Hurston took motion pictures and that some have survived is, in itself, remarkable. What is even more remarkable is that in the course of a single year of experimenting with the camera, Hurston essentially anticipated a variety of issues that would be central to the field of visual anthropology. In considering filmmaking as a mode to "document culture," recent scholars have raised some critical questions about the history of the discipline--are films "objective" or "subjective" documents? Must a filmmaker be only an observer of or a participant in the community? Where does a filmmaker stand, literally and philosophically, with regard to the community that she is documenting? This paper will explore a sampling of Hurston's surviving films and demonstrate her pioneering contribution to the field of visual anthropology and performative film production.

By the time Zora Neale Hurston got a motion-picture camera, she was already an accomplished writer and an anthropologist in-training. After graduating with a B.A. from Barnard College in 1928, Hurston returned to the South to collect folklore with the help of professor Franz Boas, one of the founding figures in American anthropology. …

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