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The Making of Cora Unashamed

Interviews with the screenwriter and the director

Anne Peacock, screenwriter | Deborah M. Pratt, director

Anne Peacock, screenwriter of Cora Unashamed, is a South African-born writer who trained as an attorney and taught Law at the University of Cape Town before emigrating to the United States in 1986. She has translated her interest in social justice and civil rights into writing screenplays which are reflective of these themes, such as Columbia Pictures' Goodbye Bafana (about Nelson Mandela) and HBO's A Lesson Before Dying (an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Ernest Gaines) prior to her Cora Unashamed assignment. Her screenplay for A Lesson Before Dying earned her an Emmy Award. She is writing an adaptation of the novel Country of My Skull (about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) for Phoenix Pictures.

How would you characterize Cora Unashamed? If you were to describe the story to someone who had not read it, how would you describe it?

Anne Peacock: It's a story about unconditional love and I think the whole notion of being unashamed. Cora is unashamed of who she is, unashamed of the way she feels. That's what it's about. She's somebody who believes in herself, who doesn't have a voice but finds it ultimately. If you wanted to encapsulate the theme, to me it's about unconditional love. Mrs. Studevant is everything that Cora is not because her love is conditional.

Cora doesn't have a voice because she's isolated by race.

AP: We have to bear in mind when the story was set, in the early part of the century. It's in Iowa, which makes a difference. Black people in Iowa were treated differently from black people in the South. Of course that was a little problem that Langston Hughes created for us because of the dislocation between the voice in the story, which is very southern... southern white behavior... and yet he set it in Iowa. But Cora is living in this little town, part of the only black family. She is someone who is obviously accepted to a certain extent by the people in the town, but only as long as she knows her place and doesn't step out of line. People accept her and love her and the racism is ... Well, in the story itself it's overt, but I think in reality, from my research anyway, in Iowa it wasn't as overt as in the South. It was a much more restrained kind of racism.

Would you say that Cora's isolation increases the price she pays for the action she takes?

AP: Cora has absolutely no support, in the story she doesn't have any family support either. She really is out on her own and she doesn't have a cohesive black community to support her having the baby out of wedlock. She has nothing. It speaks to the tremendous character that she has. To me, the most descriptive thing in the book is when Hughes says, "Cora was like a sheltering tree." To me, the description that echoed even more than "unashamed," was "Cora was like a sheltering tree." And that is the genius of Langston Hughes -- he has such a command of language. He can say so much, so simply, and that was what I had in mind for Cora -- weathering all these storms, rooted and nurturing and loving. That was the way I saw her, always.

What were your first steps in dramatizing the story?

AP: I always believe that research is everything and I researched Langston Hughes first, because no writer writes in a vacuum. I knew nothing about Langston Hughes other than a little bit of his poetry. I had no idea that he'd ever written any prose, actually, I didn't know any of his short stories. When [executive producers] Marian [Rees] and Anne [Hopkins] gave me this short story to read I was quite astounded. I thought -- how do you turn this into a full-length movie?

I read everything that I could lay my hands on. I read The Ways of White Folks, all the short stories. I read Hughes's little novel called Not Without Laughter, which is superb. It surprises me that that isn't better taught and better known. And then I read a biography of Langston Hughes because you've got to know where the artist is coming from. You want to understand their stories, and that's the attitude I've always had in adapting something. I got the spirit of Langston Hughes. I'm looking to see what was the pattern that emerged in all his stories, and there is a pattern that emerges. It's very clear in "Cora" where the white people's behavior is shown up by the good character of the black person.

I have sometimes heard Langston Hughes accused of turning people into caricatures. His writing is actually a lot more subtle than it appears, if you read carefully, because of his language. For example, "Cora was a sheltering tree..." People might appear to be one dimensional in a very short story where you don't get the nuances of their character, but he gives little clues, like "Cora was a sheltering tree." With Mrs. Studevant, when she comes back from obviously having aborted the baby, Hughes says 'Mrs. Studevant talked a lot, Mrs. Studevant explained a lot.' He doesn't need to say any more than that for us, does he? Immediately we see there's another side, there's a whole thing going on behind this exterior, this facade that Mrs. Studevant shows for the world.

And so, I went through his short stories, very carefully, obviously millions of times, just looking for all those little clues where I could take the story and expand on it. The research was important because I went to Iowa for one thing. I went to a wonderful little museum in Madison County, and they showed me what things looked like at that time. I read all the newspapers, the Madison County Register from 1915. I got the sensibility of the people. And then I made the most wonderful contact, a woman called Miss Helen Johnson, a woman who is of the same generation as Cora. She was introduced to me by the African-American History Society of Iowa, which I never knew existed. Actually, I frankly didn't know there was an African-American community in Iowa. I thought it was one of those pretty much white states, which it is, but there is a strong, old, cohesive African-American community that came up from the South a long time ago.

Anyway, Miss Johnson was an absolute gold mine of information for me, because she lived at the same time that Cora did. Hers was the only black family in a white town in Iowa. And her father was born into a slave family in the South and, at the age of thirteen, was brought by Union soldiers to Iowa at the end of the Civil War. Miss Johnson was ninety years old when I met her and she's as sharp as a knife, her memory was perfect. She told me all the details of life for a young black woman that I needed, to tell the story. That's how I got much of the sensibility -- I got to know somebody like Cora.

There's not much data. I had to think of a whole history for Cora. What was life like in Iowa? What was life like for a black woman with, as Miss Johnson had, no black friends. There was no black community. She said the only other blacks they ever saw were at church. They would travel to the Baptist church because there were only Methodist churches in their little town. All her friends were white. She said she was very smart but things changed, of course, when she was a teenager. She couldn't get a summer job. The only job she could get was working as a maid, a cleaning person. She was just as educated as all her friends. The only people who employed black boys were Jews and she said that there was a Jewish garage owner who employed her brother. Otherwise, they had to leave. This made perfect sense in the story -- the boys all left, in the story. These are the ways I got to know Cora and how I saw her -- as a person who was intelligent, but who had obviously been denied opportunities that the average white person had.

Then of course there was the white family. We had to make up a little biography for them. What was the issue for Mrs. Studevant? Where did she come from? Why did she have this need to prove something, as she did? This feeling that she is someone in the community and that the child must not shame her in front of all these other families... And so I imagined that she was someone who came from Iowa City and had all these pretensions and wanted this little girl to be something that she couldn't be.

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One of the challenges must have been fleshing out the story in a way that was true to Hughes's intention, even when you were inventing the scenes.

AP: Absolutely. I got to know Hughes through the biography, so I felt that what I was writing could be true to him and to his spirit. Obviously, the details of the story would be different because there was invention, an extension of the story. But I wanted to be as true to him as I could, bearing in mind that we are entertaining an audience in the nineties, so the sensibility is different. The spirit of the story, I think, was needed more than anything. People can argue about the details -- "Oh, Cora never said that," or "We don't think Cora would have done that," or "Mrs. Studevant wouldn't have worn clothes like that," or something. We can argue about the details, but I think the spirit is true.

This story takes place almost exclusively between two women and yet it was written by a man. Did you think about that as you adapted it?

AP: You know, I never stopped to think about it for a second. I'm not all that hung up about the gender of the people who write things. I just look at the voice that comes through. I never stopped to think, "Gee, this is a story by a man about women..." Because, well, I suppose that's testimony to the great writer that Hughes is. I tend to feel that gender doesn't really matter. I mean, I write from the point of view of men, and I never stop to think about it, actually. Maybe I should. Hughes is such an astute judge of character. His knowledge of human beings is so deep that he could write from the point of view of a woman or women, it doesn't matter that he's a man.

When you're doing an adaptation of a story how do you interpret or visualize it? At what point do you stop reading the story?

AP: Well, I think every writer will tell you that a story takes on a life of it's own. Obviously, the more you get to know the characters and the more knowledge you have about the characters from your research... ideas come to you. I haven't been in this business for long so I don't have a long and illustrious history and career that I can draw on, but I have this sort of instinct that comes to me instantly. I'm learning to trust that instinct, which is difficult when you're first in this business. You assume other people know more than you do, which they probably do a large part of the time. But I had a feel for this story right from the beginning and the research filled in from there.

There was a great deal of collaboration with Anne and Marian with regard to structuring the story... very few writers write on their own. The three of us had to decide when the story was going to begin and when it was going to end, and we weren't sure how much backstory to put in. Were we just going to jump in, in 1934? Or were we going to write backward? Were we going to show the whole chronological affair with Joe? How? In fact, as I remember it, we were quite adamant at the beginning that there weren't going to be any flashbacks. Absolutely "We are not going to have flashbacks!" And, of course, it became quite abundantly clear that we needed them. This is what happens with a story... you just have to get the feel for it. You have an idea and then you feel your way through it.

Was there a scene that you especially enjoyed writing?

AP: There were many, actually. So many of them. I'm not sure how many ended up in the film. But I loved that moment when Cora was finally able to express her frustration by picking up that carpet beater and beating the carpet. You knew that what she absolutely wanted to do was bash Mrs. Studevant to pieces and we all did too. I can't remember where I got the idea from but I had the feeling that Cora would somehow want to express that anger and frustration. She's not the kind of person who would ever hurt anybody. It's so, sort of, organic that she would pick up some household object and beat the carpet. I felt very good about that.

I loved those interactions between Mrs. Studevant and Cora when there was this incredibly electrically-charged atmosphere I felt with them. I could feel how Cora would have all this feeling in her, but she couldn't say anything because there was this master and servant relationship. I also felt Mrs. Studevant's feeling of walking around with such rage and being not quite sure where it's coming from. She feels put upon... cheated by life for some reason and she doesn't even know what it is. I liked writing that dynamic.

There was a scene that I just loved... when Mr. Studevant had not stood up for Jessie and Cora stopped him on the stairs. I remember saying that Mr. Studevant was walking out of the house 'with the demeanor of a man who's bearing a sad and lonely secret.' They meet on the stairs and Cora looks him dead in the eye and says, "That was wrong, Mr. Studevant." He's basically a good man but he just doesn't, as he says to his wife, "have it in me to be cross with you, to be angry with you." At that stage he hadn't gotten to the point where he could stand up to his wife, although he was on his way there. That was something I really loved.

And I loved the scene with Cora and Josie when they were the whirling dervishes, the two together. There's such a love that Cora had for her little girl..

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Was there a scene that was especially difficult for you?

AP: Well, that funeral scene was very difficult, very, very difficult to get right. I didn't want Cora to be diminished by... for the anger to diminish her. As I saw it, Cora's fury really came from a love of Jessie and a love of Josie, rather than a hatred of Mrs. Studevant. That was the way I saw it. That's a really difficult thing to convey and that's a hard thing for an actress to do -- very, very hard. And that was a very hard scene to write to get that balance because in the book it's very... it's almost too... you don't get a lot of help in that scene. No, that's not the right way to put it. It works on paper, but it's hard to convey that visually, I think. So that was a very difficult scene for me to write.

To what extent was it possible for you to preserve Hughes' dialogue? Did you have to change quite a lot of it?

AP: Well, you just have to. Because what I know, what we all know only too well, is that what works on paper doesn't work, necessarily, as spoken word. And the actress has to feel comfortable. I did not actually write some of the things said and that's something a writer has to be humble about. You have to trust... entrust your words to the actors. The bottom line is the acting and if the words don't feel right, they'll change them around in a way that does feel right. I haven't ever sat down and compared what I wrote with what actually was said and with the book, so I can't say, actually, which version is the truest. But I do respect theright of the actor or actress to say what feels right for them. People say, "Oh, who do you think you are, changing Langston Hughes?" I can tell you, it's humbling. It's a scary thing because you feel these are big shoes I'm trying to fill in my own humble way... You've got to look at the flow of the scene... I can't say any more than that.

Did the two lead actresses fulfill your expectations?

AP: They're both brilliant actresses and they interpreted their parts very, very skillfully. You can't agree on everything, obviously, but overall I would say that they were very true to what I wrote.

You couldn't have Cora be meek and mild and then suddenly one day blowing up. Regina showed that build very well. I mentioned that electrically charged atmosphere? It was there. You also see a glimmer of Mrs. Studevant starting to crack when she says, "She's my child and I'll look after her myself." And Cora's starting to challenge her for the first time. You were almost waiting for a little tug of war to go on there. I believe Mrs. Studevant was afraid of Cora and all she had with Cora... She had no moral authority over Cora. She purely had the power of a master over a servant. There was no moral authority. Cora had all the moral high ground and that was very intimidating for Mrs. Studevant.

How did you expand Joe's role?

AP: Joe. What was very interesting to me was: who could Joe be? We better bear in mind we're looking at 1916 -- interracial romances did not happen. It certainly was not legitimate and Langston Hughes gives us two very, very good clues here. He says everybody said Joe was an IWW, which made perfect sense to me. I immediately researched everything I could find on the IWW and was all set to write a movie about the IWW (laughs). Anyway, International Workers of the World were, of course, anarchists. And he was some kind of foreigner. The IWW at the time was full of foreigners. It also made perfect sense because he would be more likely to have an affair. Not just a wham, bam, one-night-stand... The other Jenkins girls were being used, as they say, by the white farmhands. It seemed to me that for someone without the same set of prejudices as a person raised in this environment, it's quite conceivable that a love relationship, could develop. That's where I got the idea of Joe.

I put in the bit about Joe explaining where he's coming from because I wanted people to know who Joe was, that he was somebody who was a little different and that he was passing through, instead of the notion that he was someone who came, had a bit of a good time and pushed off again. But there was something very lasting about the relationship. It just seems that Langston Hughes doesn't speak as harshly of Joe as he does of the other white farm hands, not quite as harshly. He says, "Love did not take long." Isn't that beautiful? "Love did not take long." What else do you need to say? That's where I got the whole story of Joe. I thought he'd be a young and rather sensitive young man.

And then the little poem I wrote... I looked though every one of Langston Hughes's poems looking for an appropriate one because I thought, "God, he could do better than I could!" And it's going to be this boy's own words so it's got to be a very simple poem and it's got to be from the heart.

I was at my wits' end. I went though that whole Norton Anthology. I was looking at every poet under the damn sun! And then I sat down and I thought, "How would I feel if my husband died? How would I think of him afterwards?" And I thought I would see him on our farm. I would see him where we walked. And I wrote this funny little poem, because that's the way I saw it. It was organic to the story. "I see you in the cornfields. I see you where the blue grass grows." It seemed to me that Cora and Joe were kindred hearts in the notion of love lasting forever. That's where Joe came from.

What about Mr. Studevant?

AP: The fact that Mrs. Studevant chose the moment when Mr. Art was away, that she chose that moment to take Jessie on the shopping trip, speaks volumes. She wouldn't do it in front of him, and of course that sort of subterfuge was her whole life... Mrs. Studevant, deceiving everybody. I know Mr. Studevant is not just weak, he's absent and he's also complicit in what happens with Cora, but he's not as bad. And of course we're looking at a movie, which is different from a book. You can't have two characters that are exactly the same, both Mr. and Mrs. Studevant being ghastly people. You want to show interactions, and that's how I got this triangle. It seemed to me that it would be weakness on the part of the man with a woman like this, with a very formidable character, because she is the one who calls the shots.

We all know love is crazy and complicated but instead of just showing him as a caricature we needed to show the dynamic of their relationship. So we showed the weakness, but he's not a bad man. It wouldn't have been interesting if he was just a bad man, a nasty man. The fact that he was more sympathetic to Cora made this triangle, this dynamic, very interesting...

In one scene, he had Mrs. Studevant leave the room for something, but he looked at Cora.

AP: Yes he engineered that. That ended up a bit differently because we had to cut some scenes actually. We had to cut that sequence of scenes because of time constraints and various other things. But he was definitely engineering a moment when Cora could be alone and Cora took it. He wanted that moment for her. I remember when I wrote it, I could just feel Cora standing in the house, hearing the car door, and the car go, and thought if this were me, I would be up those stairs, even though I'm not supposed to be.

What was the significance of the ribbon that Cora gives Josie?

AP: I remember writing the ribbon thing, the whirling dervishes, and I remember the ribbon going off, because I wanted something to remain. Because you know when someone has died, some small object can bring back a huge flood of memories, just some simple thing that you wouldn't normally notice. And I wanted that moment to evoke the memory of Josie and the memory of the loss. I actually didn't write the tying of the bow, that was either the actress or the director, a very beautiful invention. I had Cora having a more private moment where she just found it and tucked it in her pocket, to herself. It was a very lovely touch where the little girl wants Cora to tie it onto her hair. That's what I mean about collaboration. An actress can feel something, and want to do it and bring something really wonderful to a story, or a director.

Anne Peacock, screenwriter | Deborah M. Pratt, director

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