Zora Neale Hurston Film Adaptations 🎥

Zora Neale Hurston was an African American writer and a connoisseur of black folklore and tradition. And because her narratives are emotional, fact-based, and history-rich, her works serve as a steady fertile ground for film adaptations.

Zora Neale Hurston

(1891-1960), American

There have been several of Zora Neale Hurston’s works have undergone adaptations. Some of such works include her best-ever written piece and novel ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ her New York Times best-selling biographical work ‘Barracoon,’ and her play ‘Spunk’ among others. In this article, Zora Neale Hurston’s works that have been made into films will be examined. 

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Directed by Darnell Martin and executive produced by Oprah Winfrey, the ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ television version was released in 2006 via the ABC network. The TV drama was based on the 1937 Zoe’s Neale Hurston’s phenomenal novel of the same name and came with a lot of hype.

Like the original book, the film follows the story of Janie Crawford, who is played by the talented Halle Berry, a beautiful black woman whose courageous search for true love and freedom leads her across several marriages and on the other side of social conventionality. 

Janie has the most unpleasant of times across her marriages and the out society as she refuses to bow down to the pressures which demand her to be subservient in her marriage and resign to the popular responsibility of being just another housewife and foregoing her personal dreams and desires. 

Michael Ealy, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and Mel Winkler play Tea Cake, Joe Starks, and Logan Killicks, respectively, while Nicki Micheaux filled the role of Janie’s best and trusted friend Phoeby Watson. 

The miniseries was met with a huge reception from critics and viewership alike – with the major criticism coming from the fact that the film subtly circumvented what was an overly racial narrative of the original work of Zora Neale Hurston. The film and its crew were selected for several awards, including Black Movie Awards, Black Reel Awards, and the Golden Globe Awards.

Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun

In 2008, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) released the American Masters documentary series about the life and legacy of Zora Neale Hurston. 

Because Hurston’s story was so interesting, the PBS filmmakers remade it for the screen – including facts from her biography such as her childhood, influence in the Harlem Renaissance, literary exploits, rise to fame, and fall from grace. The documentary also covered her penniless death, lost tomb and legacy, and their recovery by a young black female writer, Alice Walker. 


In 2020, Hip Hop artist and movie producer Lonnie Rashid Lynn or Common for short, teamed up with Lionsgate for a screen remaking of Zora Neale Hurston’s original work in ‘Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo.’ 

Back in the late 20s and early 30s, Hurston had had the privilege of interviewing one of the last survivors of the Atlantic crossing, Cudjo Lewis, who was then 86 years old and part of the last set of slaves illegally transported from Africa to America before the final abolition. 

At the time, Lewis was said to be the last remaining member of his crew, so Hurston took a trip to Alabama and had an extensive with him about the experience he recalled from the trip, his Benin homeland, and how things were for him before he was captured and shipped to America. The film appears to be in the works with Lionsgate and Freedom Road Productions, owned by Oscar winner and rapper Common. 

To Gleam it Around, to Show My Shine 

This was another adaptation inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s biggest work, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’ The script was written by Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah.

The adaptation premiered in 1983 at Wayne State University, and follows in line with the original story in Hurston’s 1937 book ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’ The show was received well, and it went on to win New American Plays Award at the Kennedy Center’s Art Fund 4 years after its premiering. 

The Gilded Six-Bits

A short screen adaption of one of Zora Neale Hurston’s first works, ‘The Gilded Six-Bits’ published as a short story in the early 1930s, got a screen remake by director and screenwriter Booker T. Mattison and released on Showtime in 2001.

The plot centers on a happy couple and their perfect day-to-day enjoyment of each other’s company – only to be disrupted by the arrival of a wealthy third party. From here, the core of their marriage is tested by materialism and in all its goodness, but the couple’s bond is not an easy one to sever. 

Chad Coleman and T’Keyah Crystal Keymah played the roles of the happy couple Joe and Missie May Banks, while Wendell Pierce starred as the materialistic and influential stranger. The adaptation was a 21 minutes show of artistry, and even though it was one of the earliest works of Zora Neale Hurston, it would represent the passion and true essence of her later works.


Has ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston been adapted for television before? 

Zora Neale Hurston’s acclaimed novel ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ has inspired several book-to-screen adaptations – with the most popular one being the one with the same title, which was executive produced by the famous talk show host Oprah Winfrey. Aside from these, bits and pieces of Hurston’s works have been integrated by Netflix, PBS, and other Hollywood-affiliated companies when shooting films that tap into rich, black American narratives.

How much of Zora Neale Hurston’s writings have been remade for the screen?

Several of Zora Neale Hurston’s works have been adapted into proper films, miniseries, and documentaries. Among those works include her all-time best ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ of 2006 – led by the iconic Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry. Other works of Hurston which have seen a screen remake are ‘Barracoon,’ and ‘Gleam’ among others. 

Is ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ the movie as good as the original book?

Pioneered by Oprah Winfrey, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ the movie version is a fairly good movie based on the general reception and accolades it got after its release. However, while top actors like Halle Berry put out some excellent performances, the movie was never taken to have done justice to the body of Hurston’s original ideas from the book. 

Which popular black celebrities were involved in the making of ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ the movie?

Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry are the two female black celebrities whose roles were pivotal to the making of the 2006 film’s version of the book. While the latter took up a leading role in the plot, the former was influential in the production of the film.

What’s the film Barracoon about?

Barracoon is a film based on Zora Neale Hurston’s interview with Cudjo Lewis, one of the only surviving members of the last slave shipment from Africa to America.

Victor Onuorah
About Victor Onuorah
Victor is as much a prolific writer as he is an avid reader. With a degree in Journalism, he goes around scouring literary storehouses and archives; picking up, dusting the dirt off, and leaving clean even the most crooked pieces of literature all with the skill of analysis.
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