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Transformation of Black Fiction into Film

[By Jerry W. Ward]

Transformation of fiction into film necessitates
deformations. Some transformations may enhance a flawed story, but they
frequently cheapen the nuances of strong fiction. Viewers who have not read the
source may logically think the film is excellent. Readers who move from the
source to the film may have a quite different opinion, for they know that the
probable intentions of the fiction writer have been murdered.
Such is the case with the television film of Richard
Wright’s novella “Long Black Song.” 
Sarah’s husband Silas is figuratively castrated by the film; his agency
to extract a cuckold’s revenge is erased by magnifying his submissiveness to a
white merchant and to his wife’s imperatives. 
Wright’s intentions are spun 180 degrees. His purposeful depiction of
Silas’s act of violence and resolve to die bravely for his beliefs are
minimized for the comfort of genteel television viewers.

A screening and discussion of the film “The Autobiography of
Miss Jane Pittman” at the 2013 Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration shed
light once again on transformative reduction. 
First, the fictive editor of Miss Jane’s oral autobiography, her
neo-slave narrative, is not the novel’s teacher of history but the film’s
magazine journalist.  This gesture
dislocates the educational context for reading Gaines’s novel and obligates us
to use a magazine’s context for viewing the film.  In the film, the folkloric richness of Miss
Jane’s clairvoyance about the death of her husband Joe Pittman isn’t balanced
by her refusal to use hoo-doo to ensure that Albert Cluveau dies in extreme
agony for murdering her “adopted son” Ned. His death is as erased from the film
as is the relationship the “brothers – half-brothers,” the black Timmy and the
white Tee Bob.  Absent too are Miss
Jane’s keen remarks about Creoles.  Tee
Bob’s passionate love for the Creole teacher Mary Agnes LeFabre, his rape of
Mary Agnes, and his subsequent suicide never appear on the screen. The added
scene of Miss Jane’s drinking from the “White Only” water fountain in Bayonne
robs us of the exercise of imagination Gaines demanded from readers of the
novel.
Transformation of African American fiction into film is a
ripe subject for a monograph or a master’s thesis. We have to account for
additions and omissions. We have good reasons for exploring the reductive
politics of entertainment.