Middletown filmmaker’s Zora Neale Hurston documentary to air on PBS

Filmmaker captures the famed author’s story with Hurston’s words and footage.

Before she began working on her new documentary, filmmaker and Wesleyan professor Tracy Heather Strain admitted that she didn’t know much about Zora Neale Hurston except that she was an author. 

Strain said she was buying groceries when she received a call from American Experience asking her to create a documentary about Hurston and her anthropological work. 

“Of course I said yes, partly because it's Zora Neale Hurston, a towering figure, but that’s all I knew about her. I knew she had written ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ and I was actually kind of embarrassed that I didn’t know more about her,” the Middletown resident said.  

Zora Neale Hurston was friends with Carl Van Vechten, famed photographer during the Harlem Renaissance, who tookthis portrait on November 9, 1934.

Zora Neale Hurston was friends with Carl Van Vechten, famed photographer during the Harlem Renaissance, who took
this portrait on November 9, 1934.

Yale University Library

Eleven months later Strain is intimately familiar with the details of the author’s life as her documentary “Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space” prepares to air on PBS Jan. 17 at 9 p.m. Strain said she and her team quickly turned around the documentary and voiced her gratitude for her team’s dedication to the film. 

“I was particularly interested in this connection with how she wrote ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ the connection between the anthropological work that she did and her literary output,” she said. Working on the documentary gave Strain the opportunity to learn more not just about Hurston but also anthropology. “She was considered the foremost scholar and knowledgeable person on Black folklore,” Strain said about Hurston’s research. 

“She thought it was beautiful, she thought it was significant and she thought it was her business to have the world appreciate it,” Strain said.  

In Strain’s documentary viewers not only learn about Hurston’s anthropological career, but her early life, the obstacles she faced and how she was treated among her academic contemporaries. “This was someone who did her best to bring to the public something that she cared about and faced tremendous hurdles,” Strain said. “She was a genius, she should have been supported.” 

Over the course of her research Strain said she learned a number of things about Hurston including how Hurston had to work multiple jobs and lie about her age to pursue an education. Hurston was conducting her research during the early 1900s and faced classism, racism, regionalism and sexism while she pursued her academic interests.

Zora Neale Hurston was an author and anthropologist. 

Zora Neale Hurston was an author and anthropologist. 

Library of Congress

“I’d like audiences first of all to understand Zora Neale Hurston’s life and journey and experience it in a powerful way, and I want people to think more about how we categorize people. Zora Neale Hurston faced discrimination from all corners, not just from white society,” the filmmaker said. “She didn’t let these things stop her from doing what she wanted to do. The only thing that seemed to stop her was money.” 

When talking about the author, Strain described her as “committed” and “fearless” as Hurston traveled through sundown towns in the South alone as a Black woman while conducting her research. Strain added that as a filmmaker she felt a connection with Hurston. 

“I feel a kinship to Hurston’s anthropological work in the sense that as a documentary filmmaker I have to enter spaces sometimes that are not my spaces; I have to do research to understand the spaces I will enter and I have to talk to people and gain their trust so they’re willing to share their knowledge and their stories and basically collaborate with me,” she said. “I also feel as an African American documentary filmmaker that I face some of the hurdles that she has also faced.” 

Zora Neale Hurston plays with children in Eatonville, Florida. This photo was taken during the Lomax-Hurston-Barnicle recording expedition to Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas. June 1935.

Zora Neale Hurston plays with children in Eatonville, Florida. This photo was taken during the Lomax-Hurston-Barnicle recording expedition to Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas. June 1935.

Library of Congress

Throughout the documentary, Strain includes interviews with scholars who discuss Hurston’s life and academic contributions as well as quotes from Hurston and archival footage the author filmed while conducting her anthropological research. 

“Putting this film together was really challenging, there was so much we wanted to say,” Strain said. “I wanted to try to have as much of her story told through her own voice as I could.” The filmmaker noted that because some of Hurston’s papers were burned after her death and Hurston wasn’t the most forthcoming with her emotions, it made it more difficult to find any of the author’s writing where she revealed what she was thinking and feeling. Some of the quotes included in the film are from letters Hurston sent to poet Langston Hughes and anthropologist Franz Boas.

Hurston’s writing fell out of fashion at the end of the Harlem Renaissance but had a resurgence in the late 1970s when author Alice Walker published an essay about Hurston. Strain said Hurston has gained more interest in recent years as her book “Barracoon” was published in 2018, and “You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays” was published in 2022. 

“I think it’s important to tell stories about underrepresented people whenever we can and I think that Hurston provides that,” she said. “I think it’s important to have stories that are made for the general public about Zora Neale Hurston…I think her story resonates with a lot of African American women and I think people crave stories about their forebears, their foremothers, but I think her story’s for everybody.”