#516) Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940 (1940)

#516) Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940 (1940)

OR “The Mark of Zora”

Directed by Zora Neale Hurston

Class of 2005

Not a lot of clips I could easily imbed for this post, so here’s a video on Zora Neale Hurston.

NOTE: Zora Neale Hurston’s raw footage of “Commandment Keeper Church” is 42 minutes, and this write-up is based on my viewing of a 16-minute edit made available on The Criterion Channel. 

OTHER NOTE: Zora Neale Hurston is a very important, nuanced figure in not only African-American history but also American history period. This post can only scratch the surface, and researching her life and work is well worth your time. A good starting point is her official website! 

The Plot: On the weekend of May 18th-19th, 1940, African-American anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston arrived in Beaufort, South Carolina with a skeleton crew to record the religious services at Commandment Keeper Church. The raw footage, mixed in some prints with raw audio of the visit, commemorates an energetic gathering at the church, complete with musical performances and an enthusiastic sermon. What seems like an ordinary church service is a record of specific time and place from one of the 20th century’s most notable Americans.

Why It Matters: The NFR admits that the film is “worthy of recognition” because of the then-recently discovered sound recordings that had been synched to the film. There’s also a more supportive essay by religious expert Fayth M. Parks, who is so far the only NFR essayist who mentions their Twitter account.

But Does It Really?: You had me at Zora Neale Hurston. I’m embarrassed to say I knew nothing about Ms. Hurston prior to this viewing, and researching her life for this post has been a satisfying experience. Like the congregation at Commandment Keeper Church, I have seen the light, and recognize Zora Neale Hurston for the significant figure she is. No argument here for the film’s NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black cities in America. It was during her time at Barnard College that Hurston started to seriously study anthropology, earning her degree in the subject in 1928. Hurston focused on studying various black cultures both in America and abroad. In addition, her research served as inspiration for her fiction novels, most notably the Harlem Renaissance classic “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. In 1940, fellow anthropologist Jane Belo commissioned Hurston to film religious services in Beaufort, South Carolina based on the success of Margaret Meade’s “Trance and Dance in Bali”.

Wow, That’s Dated: As a pseudo-sequel to the Solomon Sir Jones films, “Commandment Keeper” shows the evolution of “Sunday Best” clothing 15 years later. And Beaufort’s warmer weather gives us a better look at the suits and dresses no longer covered in winter coats.

Other notes

  • If you’re watching this footage with audio, keep in mind it’s not meant to synchronize with the film. The audio is courtesy of the Hurston collection in the Library of Congress, based on field recordings made at the same time as this film. The sound was recorded at a different speed than the film, making total synchronization a challenge for the Library of Congress.
  • I appreciate Commandment Keeper Church’s simple mission: You see those ten rules in stone? That’s what we’re going by.
  • The service at Commandment Keeper Church is very different from my experience in Catholic mass growing up. For starters, I was told to remain seated. But what if the spirit moves me?
  • It’s hard to understand what this congregation is actually singing, but you don’t need subtitles to know what they’re feeling.
  • There are a variety of percussion instruments being used here, but someone really loves cymbals, there are at least three pairs. Of course, with the right attitude, any two objects can become cymbals.
  • Look for Zora Neale Hurston making a director’s cameo playing a pair of rattles.
  • My takeaway from this film (especially once it moves outdoors) is that a church isn’t just a building; it’s a state of being anytime a group of devout followers gather. Not bad for a religious cynic like me.

Legacy

  • Like many of the greats, Zora Neale Hurston didn’t start getting serious recognition until long after her passing. Interest in Hurston’s work was revived in the early 2000s, resulting in a slew of tributes and honors. In 2014, she received the highest honor bestowed on any American: a Google Doodle.
  • Zora Neale Hurston is so prolific that she’s still getting new material published! Her non-fiction book “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’” about the Atlantic slave trade failed to find a publisher in 1931 and was stored away for decades until being rediscovered in the early 2000s. “Barracoon” was finally published in 2018, 58 years after Hurston’s death.
  • In 1971, future “The Color Purple” novelist Alice Walker found the unmarked grave Zora Neale Hurston was buried in, and paid for a new marker praising Hurston as “A Genius of the South.”

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