American Masters "Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun" on WXXI-TV

Mon, 02/22/2010 - 10:00pm

Pictured: Publicity shot of Hurston.

Credit: Courtesy of the University of Florida Library

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most celebrated — and most controversial — figures of the Harlem Renaissance. This film includes rare archival footage from Hurston’s own collection, and features interviews with Alice Walker, Dorothy West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Maya Angelou and others.

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry.
It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.

– Zora Neale Hurston


Writer. Cultural anthropologist. Chronicler of folk roots and ethnic traditions. Daughter of a former slave. The first black graduate of Barnard. Zora Neale Hurston attained unique success in many areas, but during her lifetime her words and conclusions were often surrounded by contention. A flamboyant and gregarious woman, she was called unpredictable, outrageous, bodacious. She collaborated with Langston Hughes, was criticized by Richard Wright and ultimately died a pauper’s death in total obscurity. Resurrected by Alice Walker, who journeyed to Hurston’s gravesite in 1975 after reading a dog-eared copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston is now considered a lioness of African-American literature. Her works Dust Tracks on a Road and Their Eyes Were Watching God are essential reading in American classrooms today.

The life of one of the most celebrated — and controversial — voices of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance is the subject of AMERICAN MASTERS “Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, re-airing Monday, February 22, 2010, 10:00-11:30 p.m. WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11). S. Epatha Merkerson (“Law & Order”) narrates.

“Hurston was truly a maverick,” said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS. “As a black woman in the early 20th century, her accomplishments certainly defied the norm. She was unafraid to speak her mind, even when her opinions alienated peers. That fearlessness, along with her gift as an incredible storyteller, defines the legacy of this truly remarkable American woman.”

Hurston grew up the mayor’s daughter in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all-black town in America. Her books, plays and short stories embraced small-town black Southern life, where the oral tradition of telling tales played out in high drama on front porches and in back yards. Trained as an anthropologist, Hurston was prescient in anticipating the importance of black culture in shaping modern and popular American culture. Along with Alan Lomax during the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, she recorded folktales, narratives and music from coastal Georgia into Florida and, later, in the Caribbean and Central America. “Jump at the Sun” features original footage she filmed during these expeditions.

A bootstrap Republican and conservative, Hurston became increasingly out of step with contemporary black thought, moving to the right while most of black America moved into the Democratic party. Focusing only on what blacks accomplished without government assistance, she opposed welfare and forced integration, believing special treatment was demeaning. At the very height of Jim Crow, segregation and lynchings, she refuted the notion that blacks were victims. White readers loved her romantic depictions of the old South, but black intellectuals — including race champion Richard Wright — trashed them for their blind eye to racism.

In addition to Hurston’s original anthropological recordings, “Jump at the Sun” includes rare archival film footage of the rural South and interviews with Alice Walker, Dorothy West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Maya Angelou and individuals who knew Hurston personally. The film also features dramatic re-enactments of Hurston’s 1943 radio interview by actress Kim Brockington, who portrays her in an acclaimed one-woman show, Zora.

“Everyone we talked to about Zora described how she left a lasting impression, even in the briefest conversation,” said producer Kristy Anderse. “If they didn’t agree with her, she’d always explain herself and they’d end up seeing her point of view. So she may not have had the pulpit, but she was remembered as a great orator. And it’s her voice we’re trying to present in our film.”

Throughout the year, PBS invites viewers to explore the vast contributions of African Americans. In honor and celebration of Black History Month, February 2010, PBS presents new and encore programs, beginning in January and continuing through February.