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Television Review

A measured look at an extraordinary life

Writer Zora Neale Hurston was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Writer Zora Neale Hurston was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. (New York Herald Tribune/Library of Congress)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 9, 2008

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When it comes to biographies on TV, "warts and all" is hard to find. You usually either get close-ups of the "warts" from E! and VH1, or bland impressions of the "and all" from the Biography Channel. It's a pleasure, then, to see that this new episode of PBS's "American Masters," about writer Zora Neale Hurston, positions itself carefully and admirably between tribute and honesty, celebration and analysis.

Tonight at 9 on Channel 2, "Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun" recounts the life of a complex black writer who said, "I am not tragically colored." Hurston was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, a literary movement that included Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. Later, though, as her writing career evolved and she was perceived as playing up to white mentors and white readers, she drifted from that scene.

For most of her life, Hurston elected not to write about racism in the United State so much as about the everyday lives of black folks, including their dialogue, which she transcribed in a heavy dialect that some black intellectuals found offensive. She preferred to write about a proudly separate world of black people, and the documentary smartly uses its talking heads - including Maya Angelou, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alice Walker, and biographer Robert Hemenway - to explore what that approach meant to Hurston's contemporaries. Richard Wright criticized Hurston's portrayal of blacks in "Their Eyes Were Watching God" as being "quaint," for white readers. But the late writer Dorothy West took Hurston's side, saying of Wright, "I couldn't stand him."

Hurston was an anthropologist at heart, and she was obsessed with the African-American folklore circulating in the South and the Caribbean. The documentary includes some fascinating footage of Hurston sitting in on an ecstatic church ritual, where you can see the rhythm of drumming and dancing transporting all the participants into a highly emotional state. Unfortunately, the documentary also contains scenes from a dramatic recreation of a radio interview with Hurston that feels completely artificial by comparison. At least the dialogue in the cheesy recreation is taken from a transcript and provides a wonderful sample of Hurston's poetic language, her love of storytelling, and her passion about doing folk research.

One of the curious things about Hurston was her approach to the facts of her own life, which she fudged in her autobiography, "Dust Tracks on a Road," right down to naming the year of her birth (it was 1891). She was a fiercely independent woman who traveled constantly, married three times, and, in her 60s, no longer making enough money to survive as a writer, took a job as a maid. That independence brought her into popularity, out of it, and then, in the past decade or two, back into it, including a 2005 movie adaptation of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" produced by Oprah Winfrey.

"Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun" clearly does some skipping and jumping around to fit such an extraordinary life into a brisk 90 minutes. But it gives us more than enough to pique further interest in a writer who was strong, opinionated, and unwilling to be quieted.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.