Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees says there's no shame in watching this Masterpiece Theater drama.
"Cora was like a tree—once rooted, she stood, in spite of storms and strife, wind, and rocks, in the earth."—Langston Hughes, "Cora Unashamed"
The first production in Masterpiece Theater's American Collection, Cora Unashamed is based on a short story by Langston Hughes—how closely based, I'll discuss presently. The film tells of Cora Jenkins (Regina Taylor, I'll Fly Away), who lives with her mother (CCH Pounder, The Shield) in the rural town of Melton, Iowa. The two women are the only African Americans in the town, and Cora supports them by working as cook and maid for the Studevant family. The film begins in 1916 with the birth of Cora's baby, Josephine, who becomes the focus of Cora's life. When Josephine dies, Cora forms a bond with the Studevants' younger daughter, Jessie, who is treated with impatience and contempt by her own mother, Lizbeth Studevant (Cherry Jones, Signs).
Time moves forward to the 1930s, and when Jessie is about to graduate from high school, she falls in love with a boy her mother deems unacceptable: the son of the Greek family that runs the dairy. When her mother interferes in Jessie's life, the result is tragedy, and Cora is driven to speak out.
I have mixed feelings about Cora Unashamed. When I came across it during one of its television airings, I was compelled to watch through to the end; it was powerfully affecting, and it inspired me to look up the Hughes story that had inspired it. Now, watching the entire film for the first time, I feel that the last third—all I had seen heretofore—was almost sufficient in itself to convey the sense of the story. The first hour contains many powerful moments, but also some overwrought ones, and the entire enterprise departs sufficiently from the source story that it raises questions in my mind about the motive in adapting it.
Viewers who have not read the original story by Hughes (linked in the sidebar) will of course simply want to know if the film stands on its own, and it does. The acting is superb, especially that of Regina Taylor and Cherry Jones, both award-winning actresses, who create an increasingly tense employee-employer dynamic. Jones's Lizbeth Studevant is a self-centered social climber, not a cruel woman but a ruthless one; her character is chilling, yet Jones gives us a credible sense of her motivations. When she overhears her daughter Jessie laughing with Cora in the kitchen as she never laughs in her own mother's presence, we can tell that this is a blow to her—if only to her pride. Especially after this point, Mrs. Studevant seems to take tiny revenges on Cora whenever she realizes that her servant possesses a love that she has cut herself off from. Cora herself, as Taylor embodies her, has a marvelous strength; Taylor has a knack for dropping her voice in moments of emotion into a deep, harsh, almost masculine register, which is startling and effective in conveying the depth of her grief and anger. Taylor shows us that Cora is not naturally a woman who holds her tongue but who has learned to keep silent because of her powerless position—until her sense of justice demands that she throw aside her self-taught discipline.
The maternal bond she forms with young Jessie is moving and also beautifully acted, with Jessie played as a child by Molly Graham and as a teen by Ellen Muth (Dead Like Me). The pinched, wistful quality of the child Jessie is particularly moving; her own silent reaction to the death of Josephine, her only playmate, is all the more effective for its understatement when contrasted with Cora's graveside outburst. Another scene between Cora and young Jessie is particularly strong: After Jessie has been subjected to her mother's emotional abuse, Cora teaches her the technique that so many African Americans must have had to develop—to rise above others' words and find an emotional place where they can't hurt you.
The production shows the usual Masterpiece Theater high quality, from the excellence of the casting to the richness of production design. Although Melton is a backwater, the details of the historical period are all firmly in place, from the dusty unpaved main street to the chenille spread on the Studevants' bed. In fact, the loving attention to evoking a period creates a sense of golden nostalgia that is quite at odds with Hughes's story and undercuts to some extent the hard nature of the Jenkinses' life. They have a hard time—period. In Hughes's story there's none of the sunset-hued nostalgia that suffuses this film (although it must be said that the lighting design is exceptionally fine).
This brings me back again to the thorny issue of adaptation. I expect fidelity to the source from Masterpiece Theater; after all, if they feel a work is a masterpiece and worth adapting, surely their aim is to adapt it faithfully. This isn't always the case, of course; their film versions of such works as Great Expectations have taken liberties with the source material before. By and large Cora Unashamed follows the Hughes story, although it adds an enormous amount of material, a natural consequence of the (puzzling) decision to make a feature-length film from a short story. The main concern I have is that it romanticizes the original story to such a great extent. Although I can understand and respect the decisions to make Cora speak standard anchorwoman English and even to eliminate the character of her drunken father, who might otherwise have seemed to reinforce an unfortunate stereotype, in other ways the film seems to depart significantly from the spirit of Hughes's story. Of particular note is that the film doesn't retain Hughes's coda depicting Cora's life after her outburst. That allows the screen adaptation to end on a more triumphant note of self-assertion instead of showing the consequences for Cora. Screenwriter Ann Peacock explains why she made some changes to Hughes's story in an interview on the Masterpiece Theater page (linked in the sidebar), but not all of her choices seem to remain true to the spirit of his story. The cumulative effect of choices made by Peacock and director Deborah M. Pratt is to bring a gentleness, or a gentility, to the story that seems to be at odds with Hughes's matter-of-fact depiction of the harshness of the Jenkinses' life.
Perhaps these considerations will only sway the educators who intend to use this film as a teaching tool—and, of course, loyal readers of Langston Hughes. And the film did have the benefit of leading me to seek out Hughes's work, which should ideally be one of the functions of any adaptation. I would have preferred to see the disc include a featurette about the reasoning behind the adaptation and the decisions that were made during the writing and filming, but since this is a barebones disc, the film has to stand on its own.
Audiovisual quality is extremely handsome, which enhances the viewing experience: All that golden sunlight is rendered beautifully in the clean, sharply detailed transfer (in full frame, as it was originally broadcast). The aural landscape is remarkably immersive for a stereo mix and vividly recreates the rural sounds of Melton life with crickets and bird song, while presenting the musical score with pinpoint clarity and excellent highs. Dialogue occasionally is muddier, but overall the audiovisual quality lives up to the Masterpiece Theater standard of excellence.
Despite my doubts about its virtues as an adaptation, Cora Unashamed is a compelling film. It's scarcely the first adaptation of a work of fiction to take liberties with its source material, after all. The earnestly emotional tone will be tiresome to some viewers, however, so if you change the channel on Hallmark Hall of Fame films, this may not be the best candidate for your film library. On the other hand, if you enjoy richly emotional films or are one of many viewers who have missed Regina Taylor since I'll Fly Away went off the air, you should check out her fine work here. Not guilty.
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