Our Favorite Movies Adapted From Black Books
Big screen adaptations of novels written by black authors are few and far between, which is precisely why we shouldn’t just support black movies, but black books as well – especially considering African-American achievements in literature are highly underrated. So definitely give these movies a watch, but do yourself one better and pick up the original books, because we already know that the movies are never ever as good as the original literary work
The Color Purple
The 1985 period drama The Color Purple, starring Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, Danny Glover and of course Whoopi Goldberg, was a masterful remake of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. The amazing story centered on the life of Celie Harris, yet illuminated greater issues of race, poverty and gender in the early 1900s in the south. The movie was excellent as well, but compared to the book, it actually left out some of the symbolic and thematic elements (like the use of purple and lesbianism) that made the original story so groundbreaking. Nevertheless, both the movie and novel are classics, and both belong in your libraries.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
-Alice Walker, The Color Purple
In 2009, Oprah and Tyler Perry put their money and resources behind the film adaption of the novel Push by Sapphire. The result, of course, was the critically acclaimed box office success Precious, which earned $1.8 million in its limited release opening weekend and six Academy Awards nominations. But while the film was praised for its gritty portrayal of abuse and poverty, and for the actors who so passionately brought the story to life, the book is much simpler – and sadly, much less praised. It’s written in the voice and style of illiterate 16-year old Precious, making for a disturbingly candid account of horrific abuse that’s somehow poetic and dare I say it – beautiful.
“I bite my fingernails till they look like disease, pull strips of my skin away. Get Daddy’s razor out cabinet. Cut cut cut arm wrist, not trying to die, trying to plug myself back in.”
Roots was an overwhelming television success by both 1977 and current standards (some 130 million Americans tuned in at some point during the eight broadcasts). But we’d be remiss to forget about the original book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which on its own was a great literary success. The novel, written by Alex Haley and based on the story of African slave Kunta Kinte, garnered so many positive reviews upon its 1976 release that it remained a #1 New York Times Bestseller for five months.
““Is this how you repay my goodness–with badness?” cried the boy. “Of course,” said the crocodile out of the corner of his mouth. “That is the way of the world.””
-Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Nobody thought a TV movie remake could do Zora Neale Hurston’s monumental novel Their Eyes Were Watching God any justice – and everybody was pretty much right. Although the movie, produced by Oprah, did follow the same storyline as the original, it watered down the heavier themes of race, gender and sexuality to appeal to a broader audience. Should you see the movie? Of course. But definitely make an effort to read the book if you haven’t already.
“Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.”
-Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
For Colored Girls
In 2010, Tyler Perry’s big screen adaption of the landmark stage play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange was released. His take, like the original, navigated the conflicts, struggles and abuses of a group of black women with poetic panache, but may have failed to do so with the same emotionality as its source material. When asked her thoughts on Perry’s adaptation, Shange admits that she was concerned about his “characterizations of women as plastic” (aren’t we all?), but believes “he did a very fine job”, though she also said she wouldn’t call the film “finished.”
“I found god in myself and I loved her I loved her fiercely”
-Shange, For Colored Girls
Eleven years after the release of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Harpo Studios adapted the uniquely brilliant novel into film. The resulting movie, starring Oprah and Danny Glover, stayed very true to its source material in depicting the lives of escaped slaves, townsfolk, and what may or may not have been the ghost of a dead child – but was still a box office failure. That being said, I actually thought it was a good movie: the performances were solid, the cinematography was on point and it did a good job of translating Morrison’s words to the big screen. Definitely read the book for yourself and see the movie when you finish.
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
-Toni Morrison, Beloved
The Pursuit of Happyness
In May of 2006, Chris Gardner published his autobiographical work The Pursuit of Happyness, which told his miraculous rags to riches story. That December, the movie version starring Will and Jaden Smith was released. Though both stories were equally inspiring (and definitely worth reading/watching), the movie did leave out and change a few details: the timeline of events was different and Gardner’s son was actually 2-years old at the time they were homeless.
“The world is your oyster. It’s up to you to find the pearls.”
-Chris Gardner, The Pursuit of Happyness
The Women of Brewster Place
In 1989, Oprah’s Harpo Productions produced The Women of Brewster Place, a TV miniseries based on the 1982 novel by Gloria Naylor about a group of women living in a housing project. It’s all-star cast, which included Cicely Tyson, Jackee Harry, Robin Givens, Oprah, of course, and a young Larenz Tate saw the project to massive success, and it was quickly reworked into a regularly weekly series entitled Brewster Place.
Sadly, the series failed to maintain the level of viewership and critical acclaim so highly set by the miniseries and was scrapped after just one month.
“The young black woman and the old yellow woman sat in the kitchen for hours, blending their lives so that what lay behind one and ahead of the other became indistinguishable.”
-Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place
A Raisin in the Sun
A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of an impoverished Black family and their struggle to live and somehow prosper in pre-Civil Rights era Chicago. It was originally written as a play by Lorraine Hansberry that went on to break many racial barriers when it premiered on Broadway in 1959 (it was the first Broadway play to be written by a black woman and directed by a black man). Since that time, A Raisin in the Sun has actually been adapted into three films: the first in 1961 starring the original Broadway cast with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, the second in 1989 starring Danny Glover, and the third in 2008 starring Diddy and Audra McDonald.
Mama: “Oh—So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change…”
-Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
Richard Wright’s award winning novel Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young poor black male living in Chicago’s Southside circa 1930. Bigger accidently kills his boss’s daughter, and much of the book is spent navigating the conflicts associated with this crime, as well as the overarching racial and socioeconomic forces that quite possibly made the crime inevitable.
Native Son has been remade into film twice, once in 1951 and again in 1986 (Oprah played in this one!), though neither version was particularly well liked.
“We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like livin’ in jail.”
-Richard Wright, Native Son