A meditation on love, independence and the evolution of Halle Berry’s hairstyle, ABC’s latest “Oprah Winfrey Presents” telepic takes Zora Neale Hurston’s classic 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and boils it down to a simpleminded Harlequin hash. With Berry starring as the willful, impulsive, passionately outdoorsy Janie Crawford, this late-’20s Southern romance cleaves to its source material in broad strokes, but crucially lacks the tough lyricism and cohesive vision of Hurston’s prose. Result purports to celebrate individualism and free thinking while displaying precious little of its own.
Story opens with Janie returning home to Eatonville, Fla., some months after having run away with a younger man. Sweaty and caked with mud, Berry is convincingly deglammed if never exactly dowdy. Events flash back several years, and Janie is restored to a carefree, fresh-faced girl of 17 — a beauty with a lust for life, and particularly the great outdoors.
Fearing for her future, Janie’s stern but loving grandmother (a fine Ruby Dee) makes her marry an old farmer, whom she promptly dumps after being swept off her feet by dashing, wealthy entrepreneur Joe Starks (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). The two wed and move to Eatonville, the first incorporated all-black town in America, which prospers with Joe’s investments.
He eventually becomes mayor, and the position proves good for his ego and fatal to the marriage. By the time Joe dies, some 20 years of bitter tyranny later, Janie is ready for freedom once again. She finds it in the arms of Tea Cake (Michael Ealy), broodingly handsome and 12 years her junior. Their courtship — they play checkers, have midday picnics and discover the erotic properties of fruit — raises eyebrows all over the town, which has always envied and loathed Janie’s beauty and her station as the mayor’s wife.
At its heart, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” means to teach a lesson on the conformity and hypocrisy bred by community life — even in an African-American community whose citizens are putatively united in trying to establish a better life for themselves — and the need to seek one’s personal identity.
Yet missing from the teleplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, Misan Sagay and Bobby Smith Jr. is Hurston’s instinctive sense of rhythm (it takes exactly one scene change for the Starks’ perfect marriage to fall apart). More confounding, the racial complications behind Janie’s identity crisis have been expunged entirely. In the novel, Janie is the product of her mother’s rape by a white man — a galling omission here that reduces the proceedings to colorless, subtext-free melodrama.
Leading a solid ensemble that includes Santiago-Hudson, Terrence Howard and Nicki Micheaux, Berry strives valiantly as Janie, delivering a fierce, spirited and moving portrait of womanhood stifled and liberated. Few actresses could pull off the narrative’s 20-year chronological leap — pic certainly never recovers — yet Berry is capable of looking every one of her 38 years and at the same time vibrantly, astonishingly youthful.
But even Berry is roundly upstaged by her own hair — long, lush, radiant tresses (no “Monster’s Ball” crewcut for her) that become a tightly coiled metaphor for repressed sexuality after Joe jealously forces Janie to cover her head in public.
Even more literal-minded are pic’s attempts to show its heroine in communion with nature. It is Janie’s frequent wont to run barefoot through the grass, put caterpillars on her face or — when she really feels trapped — dive into a river fully clothed, turn over on her back and stare at the sun. “I’m watching God,” she says. Fans of the novel, however, might be better off watching something else.