Charnov, Elaine S.. “The Performative Visual Anthropology Films of Zora Neale Hurston.” Film Criticism. Allegheny College. 1998.
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. This was somewhat unique in the late 1920s because anthropology, a discipline born of colonialism, was largely a white and male endeavor. Boas, however, was noted for his interest in training “natives,” whether they be Inuit, Native-American, or African-American, to collect stories and material objects from their home communities. This training was founded on the belief that the researcher’s “insider access” would enable more accurate and dimensional understanding of the culture under study.
Convinced that the ways of the rural South would soon disappear, Boas had Hurston return with the objective of “recording for posterity songs, customs, tales, superstitions, lies (tall tales), jokes, dances and games” (Hemenway 90). The material gathered during this expedition to Florida, New Orleans, and Alabama, resulted in a number of academically oriented articles that appeared in both The Journal of American Folklore and The Journal of Negro History, which helped to fund the expedition.
A year later she returned to the same areas to continue collecting. However, this expedition, rather than receiving academic sponsorship, was funded by a private individual. Mrs. Charlotte Osgood Mason, patron of many artists of the Harlem Renaissance including Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and Miguel Covarrubias, agreed to support Hurston’s work. Mason saw in Hurston an opportunity to gain unique access to folklore, stories, and tales.
Hurston entered a contractual agreement with Mrs. Mason. The agreement stated that Hurston would return to the South and “collect the writing, oral music, poetry, folklore and hoodoo (voodoo) practices of the American Negro” (Hemenway 90). The fundamental difference between Boas’ and Mason’s agenda lay in how the materials would be used. Boas’ interest was grounded in his concern with salvage ethnography–that is, the process of collecting materials from a culture before it disappears so it can be studied by academics for future generations. Charlotte Mason, by contrast, was interested in the collection of the material for presentation to the general public, through popular publications and theatrical performances. Whereas Boas could only provide academic and intellectual support, Mrs. Mason supplied Hurston with what was at that time a significant salary of “$200 a month for one year and a motion picture camera and an auto to facilitate the collecting” (Hemenway 105).
Typical of the rigid restrictions of the patron/artist relationship, the employment contract stated that Hurston was to share her findings exclusively with Mrs. Mason. However, in both her folklore/ anthropological work Mules and Men and the motion picture segments, it is evident that Hurston was equally concerned with acquiring information that would be useful to her mentor, Franz Boas. As correspondence between professor and student indicate, Hurston continued to seek his intellectual advice. In a 1928 letter to him she comments,
It is unthinkable, of course that I should go past the collecting stages
without consulting you, however I came by the money. [Hurston to Boas
In essence, Zora Neale Hurston was influenced by the competing agendas of her two mentors, looking to please both “Papa” Franz, as he was called by his students, and “Godmother,” a term of address which Mrs. Mason demanded from her charges. Subsequently, in her motion pictures, she negotiated these audiences; she took motion pictures to address Boas’ concern with “objective” research, other segments to satisfy Mrs. Mason’s interest in being entertained, and lastly and most importantly, she approached filmmaking the same way she approached the literary form, experimenting with different methods and stances. The parallels between her written work and her film work are striking. Sometimes she stands as the “objective” outsider, other times as “the participant” of the community, and other times as an unabashed experimenter. In all the roles she adopts, Zora Neale Hurston is involved in capturing the dynamics of ritualized performativity on the level of daily, commonplace occurrence.
To date, Boas has been considered one of the first American anthropologists to pursue visual recording. In addition to collecting endless amounts of written materials, he also used still photography and motion picture recording to enhance collecting during fieldwork. As one ethnographic filmmaker commented,
I believe Boas to be one of the first anthropologists, and perhaps the
first social scientist anywhere, to use the motion picture camera to
generate data in natural settings (as opposed to a laboratory) in order to
study gesture, motor habits and dance as manifestations of culture. [Ruby
During the 1920s Boas was largely interested in identifying physical gestures and motor behaviors of particular cultural groups. This theoretical concern propelled him to take motion pictures during his field work in 1930 among the Kwakiutl Indians of the Northwest Coast. His films included segments of tribal dancing, playing games, and manufacturing objects. As we now have proof, Hurston preceded Boas in the use of film as anthropological documentation. The camera techniques she employed while filming her subjects bear a striking resemblance to those that Boas would later use in creating his own visual data with a motion picture camera. Given these facts, it now appears that Hurston was one of the first American anthropologists, if not the first to “generate data in natural settings.”
Her approach to some of the sequences indicates an attempt to create an “objective” record for future use and for analysis by Boas, herself, or others. In fact, in one sequence of children playing in a Cyprus grove, Hurston is so concerned with obtaining informative, accurate records that she begins the sequence by having a number of the children stand individually before the camera, with their age scrawled on a pad of paper. Additionally, a short segment of two men with an ax also suggests material intended to be used for research purposes, perhaps for comparative studies of gesture and movement. In this sequence, Hurston juxtaposes shots of two different men, both of whom are holding an ax. She provides a side and front view of each and then a whole body shot of both men gripping the tool.
The strategy that Hurston employs here can best be described as placing the camera on a tripod and letting it run without interruption, a favored approach by ethnographic filmmakers since the early 1950s. It appears that Hurston consciously anticipated this method as early as 1928. Not only is this a contested theoretical filming strategy as there is no such thing as “capturing reality”–but this next sequence, which has an unexpected moment, reveals some of the shortcomings of this technique.
In another segment, children play in a cyprus grove, clap hands, and play follow the leader. The camera is on a tripod and in a stationary position; the children walk into and out of the frame. At one point a number of them twirl in circles, arms outstretched. It becomes evident that no one is attending the camera. While twirling, one of the children knocks over the entire apparatus. Typical of Hurston’s innovative style, she explores more than a single approach in her material. In stark contrast to the previous segment, Hurston experiments with another method of documenting children’s dancing and game-playing. Rather than stand at a fixed distance, she shoots other sequences with what seems to be a handheld camera and in one sequence situates herself inside the performance circle.
Participant/observer is the role that has most significantly defined the modern anthropologist, who can both participate and perform outside of the community or culture under study. Zora Neale Hurston is a unique figure in that she acted as participant/observer in widely disparate communities. For example, she was a highly educated woman performing herself within the New York City intellectual milieu, and yet her status as African-American and woman set her apart. Additionally, she was a participant in the communities that she studied, and yet her advanced educational status and greater opportunities set her apart as an outsider.
If Hurston was interested in collecting materials and documenting activities that might be of interest either to Boas specifically or to future anthropologists generally, she was equally interested in gathering materials for her sponsor. Of all the segments, the one that seems most likely produced for Mrs. Charlotte Osgood Mason is a piece entitled “Kossula Last of the Takkoi Slaves in America.” This is the only film with a professionally created title and some intertitles [which say, “Full of vigor at 89 cheerful and dignified” and “always gracious and courtly”]. On the one hand, it is the most technically sophisticated segment because it was edited to include these titles. On the other hand, it is one of the most technically poor sequences. In fact, the last minute of the three-minute segment was completely over-exposed.
Stylistically the film is relatively simple, with static camera. In this sequence, the elderly man Kossula sits on his porch. He turns his back to the camera and walks to the center of his property and begins to split wood with his ax. He sits down on a chopping log, squinting when the sun beats directly in his eyes, and performs and gestures for/ to the camera. Something obscures the viewfinder and the image is lost. Now, with the bottom half of the image visible, Kossula walks back to his porch.
This segment has an ironic quality. This is a silent film whose theme is that of a man story-telling. It seems like a most inappropriate use of the medium. Why would one make a silent film of folklore? Transcribing the tales or even making wax cylinder recordings would have been more suitable. It is possible that this segment could have been intended as another means by which Hurston could provide Boas with material on motor behavior and performative gesture in African story-telling. Further research reveals, however, that there is a complex story related to Kossula. He had been featured not only in Hurston’s motion pictures, but also in her writing. During her first expedition to the South, Hurston wrote an article for the Journal of Negro History entitled “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver.” As her autobiography details, Cudjo and Kossula are the same person; Kossula is merely his “authentic” African name.
The 15-page story tells us that at about the age of 16, Kossula was sold by the African King of Dahomey and brought on the last slave ship that docked in Mobile, Alabama in August, 1859. Upon emancipation, Kossula and other former slaves settled in a community that became known as African Town or Plateau, Alabama. Of the 116 Africans brought to Alabama, Kossula was the last survivor from this ship. This article has been the source of great debate because passages were plagiarized from a 1914 publication entitled Historic Sketches from the Old South (Hemenway 97). It is possible that Hurston had a psychological motivation for documenting Kossula on film. Were anyone to discover the plagiarism during her lifetime and challenge her, she would have visual proof of their relationship.
Other questions remain. Why was this segment edited, with titles and intertitles? For whom was this film intended? Many theaters and institutions, such as the American Museum of Natural History, presented expedition films to general audiences during the 20s and 30s. However, this was not a sufficiently competent film to have received a public showing. It is possible that this piece was done for the benefit of her patron, Mrs. Charlotte Osgood Mason. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston makes a fleeting but relevant comment condemning Mrs. Mason’s interest in being entertained by her “godchildren,”
Then, too she was Godmother to Miguel Covarrubias and Langston Hughes.
Sometimes all of us were there [at her home]. She has several paintings by
Covarrubias on her wall. She summoned us when one or the other of us
returned from our labors. Miguel and I would exhibit our movies …
[Hurston, 1984, 177].
To a certain extent the film on Kossula symbolizes Hurston’s transition from creating “objective” records for research purposes to making films intended for a non-academic audience. Hurston, during the course of her year as filmmaker, pushes the film medium to its limit and develops it as a mode of aesthetic expression, both kinetic and performative.
In spite of the fact that Hurston was being cultivated as an anthropologist, a recorder of facts, she had come to the discipline as a creative writer, and her unique style could not be inhibited by the restrictions of social science and its attendant jargon. The publication of the Southern folklore collection Mules and Men in 1935, and her fictional masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 are both testimony to her experimentation with the written form; in the former work she inserted a fictional quality into her anthropology; in the later work she inserted a folkloric quality into her fiction. Similarly, her film style blurs the distinction between objective and subjective and explores the nature of experimental images. The segment which best illustrates Zora’s fictional effort is a sequence looking at a woman on a porch. This segment, which is about three minutes long, unfolds as follows: A woman walks out of her shack onto the porch. She smiles directly into the camera. There is a close-up of her face, a close-up of her left and right profile. The film jumps to a shot of the garden and then to a shot of the woman lying on a bench. Next we see a medium shot of a woman on a rocking chair and a close-up of her feet juxtaposed with a close-up of a cat’s paw. Next there is a long shot, a silhouette of the woman rocking, taken from a neighboring porch.
Breaking down the sequence into its component parts makes it obvious that this piece is constructed very differently from the other films presented here. This film is composed of a series of jump cuts, juxtaposing animate and inanimate objects, deconstructing the woman’s body and performativity. Stylistically it foreshadows Maya Deren’s experimental films, which were celebrated for their innovative technique in the 1940s. Again, Hurston anticipated this style by nearly a decade. It also appears that Hurston experimented with rare and technically sophisticated camera techniques. There is one extremely short segment, perhaps 5 seconds in length, in which a large boulder moves down a road on its own. Although it is unlikely that her 16mm camera had the technical sophistication, it is possible that Hurston developed a make-shift, stop-action technique.
Although Zora Neale Hurston did not write about her approach to filmmaking in any systematic way, it is evident that she was a pioneer of visual anthropology and ethnographic film. Her intense concentration on documenting the performative acts of the African American community during the 1930s and 40s marks her as an early pioneer. She experimented with filming styles, revealing the variety of stances a filmmaker can take when documenting a community. Analyzing this footage reveals her varied methodological approaches as well as her “scientific” and “artistic” uses of film.