- Presenting Oprah Winfrey, Her Films, and African American Literature ed. by Tara Green
While there has been an increase in the number of books as well as a recent journal on adaptation studies, few of these new resources examine adaptations dealing with African American texts.1 Unfortunately, disregarding African American media and/or Black viewers is not limited to adaptation studies, as Beretta E. Smith-Shomade makes clear in her recent book on television studies, Watching While Black: Centering the Television of Black Audiences (reviewed in this issue of Cinema Journal).2 Tara Green’s Presenting Oprah Winfrey, Her Films, and African American Literature is a welcome addition to adaptation studies, as well as to the fields of media studies, sound studies, and American and African American studies, and contributes compelling essays on classic works of Black literature and their adaptations.3 The scholars in this volume bring another layer to “fidelity” arguments by discussing how particular issues regarding race and racism are missed because film adaptations do not include certain story elements or characters.
The impetus for the project came from Virginia Heffernan’s description of Winfrey as “the nation’s one-woman African American studies department” in her review of Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God (Darnell Martin, 2005).4 Intrigued by this idea, Green developed a conference panel to interrogate it, and after the [End Page 178] panel and subsequent conversations, the idea for Presenting Oprah Winfrey, Her Films, and African American Literature emerged. Green’s collection examines Oprah Winfrey from a variety of disciplinary approaches and critiques her influence on African American literature through her adaptations of classic texts. Green argues that most of the texts Winfrey adapts—Native Son (Jerrold Freedman, 1986), The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg, 1985), The Women of Brewster Place (Donna Deitch, 1989), Beloved (Jonathan Demme, 1998), The Wedding (Charles Burnett, 1998), Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009)—focus on African American women and how they often overcome difficult circumstances. The authors in Green’s collection explore Winfrey’s influence on these films from various perspectives and themes, employing the blues as a central motif. The scholars engage definitions of the term from Ralph Ellison and Angela Davis to Houston Baker Jr. as they consider the ways in which blues is imbricated in African American culture.
In chapter 1, “The Black Matriarch’s Quest for Love: Oprah Winfrey as Sofia in The Color Purple,” Green examines the Winfrey character. She makes a fascinating argument that this woman and love, as a theme, are usually ignored in this film because most critiques focus on Sofia’s resemblances to known stereotypes (either the mammy or the matriarch). In moving away from this limited view, Green understands that Sofia’s ability to love and to desire love, along with her position in the film, are “significant in demonstrating the importance of love in establishing and developing relationships, particularly in Black communities.”5 Throughout the chapter, Green provides examples of Sofia’s influence on her immediate and extended family and states that her role is “essential to the development and survival of [her] family.”6 Sofia’s act of refusing to accept abuse from her husband, Harpo, or from Mister, Harpo’s father and husband of the main character, Celie, assists Celie in her own personal development and in leaving her abusive marriage. Green also astutely makes connections among critics of the blues, The Color Purple, and its film adaptation, and traces how hearing the blues coincides in the film with instances of “pain, catastrophes, near-tragic and near-comic experiences” that occur in the lives of all the characters.7 This chapter is one of the stronger examples of the specific types of interventions the collection makes. Green’s interpretation of Sofia and her influence within her extended family enrich viewers’ understanding of the character and the multifaceted ways African American people love one another. Her ability to take us outside of the stereotype many critics have applied to...