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From Book To Film: A Look At The Viola Davis-Optioned ‘Personal History Of Rachel DuPree’

From Book To Film: A Look At The Viola Davis-Optioned 'Personal History Of Rachel DuPree'

Once it was announced that Viola Davis had optioned rights to Ann Weisgarber’s The Personal History Of Rachel DuPree, in 2011, I picked up a copy for myself to read. 

I finally recently got around to reading it (my to-read pile is high, and is constantly growing), and if I could describe The Personal History of Rachel DuPree with one word, it would be bleak; This isn’t a book you’d pick up when you need something light and frivolous to read; no pleasure-filled escapism here. 

It’s a sad, heavy, tragic tale about a family, and you immediately get a sense of that from page 1.

As I read the novel, I kept wondering what it was exactly that Viola Davis saw in it to want to produce a film based on it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a well-written, well-researched, detailed, sometimes engrossing (especially early on) piece of award-winning literature that puts the reader right in the place (the badlands of South Dakota) and time (early 1900s); but one that maybe would instead be best appreciated in book form only.

As a film, if the script adaptation is identical to the story as it plays out on the pages of the novel, I wouldn’t be looking for The Help-like box office numbers to be sure. In fact, I think she’d actually have a hard time getting a studio to fund this; unless she finds herself in that rare position few actors are currently in – that coveted A-list of performers who can get projects greenlit in Hollywood, based on their name only.

As written, it’s definitely what I’d call Oscar-caliber material, and so, I suppose that could be just one of several reasons why she may have been drawn to it

Its synopsis reads:

When Rachel, hired help in a Chicago boardinghouse, falls in love with Isaac, the boardinghouse owner’s son, he makes her a bargain: he’ll marry her, but only if she gives up her 160 acres from the Homestead Act so he can double his share. She agrees, and together they stake their claim in the forebodingly beautiful South Dakota Badlands. Fourteen years later, in the summer of 1917, the cattle are bellowing with thirst. It hasn’t rained in months, and supplies have dwindled. Pregnant, and struggling to feed her family, Rachel is isolated by more than just geography. She is determined to give her surviving children the life they deserve, but she knows that her husband, a fiercely proud former Buffalo Soldier, will never leave his ranch: black families are rare in the West, and land means a measure of equality with the white man. Somehow Rachel must find the strength to do what is right-for herself, and for her children. Reminiscent of The Color Purple as well as the frontier novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree opens a window on the little-known history of African American homesteaders and gives voice to an extraordinary heroine who embodies the spirit that built America.

The central/title character, Rachel Dupree (who Viola Davis would play) struggles, and struggles… and struggles some more. It’s near relentless harsh realism, and despair. Hers is a life of, at first, desperation, and then tolerance and perseverance, which I suppose all speak to the strength that lies within her.

So, yes, she’d likely be described as the proverbial “strong black woman,” but she’s still very much a woman of her time; as in, theirs is an unabashedly traditional household: The man (her husband Isaac, who may or may not have fathered a child by a Native American woman) rules their domain. He’s tough, demanding, unforgiving, stubborn, ambitious – maybe too ambitious, so much that his personal goals (acquiring property, which was, and still is a symbol of wealth and independence) trumps his obligations to his family.

Rachel’s strength is more internal than the stereotypical external displays of “toughness” that we tend to immediately associate with black women today, thanks in part to a bevvy of reality TV shows that reinforce those stereotypes.

As I read the novel, I kept thinking of the 1970s TV show Little House on the Prairie; but far more severe. Like that show, Rachel Dupree explores several themes – family values, love, friendship, faith, independence, self-reliance, loneliness and of course racism, to name a few.

But racism isn’t at the center of the narrative as maybe you’d expect for a story set in the period that this one is, given that, often, period films featuring black people in major roles are constructed around matters of race. Rachel Dupree is a story about a family first and foremost; specifically, they’re African American homesteaders eking out an existence on the badlands of South Dakota, in the middle of a drought.

Much of the story is told in flashback, as the title character, Rachel Dupree, a wife and mother, recalls how she and Isaac came to be homesteaders in this harsh environment – from her time as a cook in a Chicago boarding house, to her desire to break free of that environment, which she does by making a deal with the dashing young son (Isaac) of her employer; a business proposition that would see Rachel’s land (which a young Isaac informs her she can apply for, via the new Homestead Act) exchanged for marriage to Isaac (Rachel sees that as her only way out) for 1 year.

1 year becomes 14 years, and seven children (she loses 2 of them, and is currently pregnant with another). And that’s where the story begins, as present (1917) is intercut with past (significant moments over the previous 14 years).

The dramatic tension here doesn’t stem from racism, but from within the family, weighed down by the elements and each other, with Rachel at the heart of it all, conflicted, as she looks back on her life, remembering the dreams she once had as a young woman, and negotiating the harsh realities of being a wife to Isaac, and a mother to several children, in an unforgiving territory.

She’s on the edge, desperation starting to overwhelm her, with finding a way out (once again, as she did when she made a deal with Isaac years before) for herself and her children, a primary motivation; but realizing the difficulties that acting on that desire would present.

We could say that having the will to even consider leaving, with or without her husband Isaac (and the fact that she’s black) is one thing that makes this a less than traditional story of women in similar predicaments, place and time, for whom the question of leaving isn’t one that’s even considered, choosing to instead accept that the lives they live are what fate has dealt them, rolling up their sleeves, and continue slaving away.

It’s gritty storytelling about hardship, with very few moments of levity, and I think that may turn off some, because it could really start to wear you down emotionally.

Reading towards the latter half of the narrative, it started to feel somewhat repetitious for me, with one struggle after another, and Rachel’s inner thoughts informing us of just how much she wants to do something about her predicament, and the hurdles that are in her way. At times, I had to put the book down for days apart, to give myself time to *recover,* just so I could get through it. Again, not because it’s a badly-written book; on the contrary. It’s because of how well the author sucks you into the lives that comprise this ailing family, and the situations they find themselves in, that dig into you.

By the way, I should add that the main characters – the parents and the existing children – are all very well drawn; complex, fully realized human beings, although Rachel is clearly the star here. As the title of the novel suggests, it’s her story, so we really see everything through her eyes.

I hope you get the picture; I’m trying to keep from giving specific plot-points away, and instead paint a portrait of the narrative with broad strokes.

I can definitely see Viola Davis in this; although, as I’ve said before, I really want to see her in something far less dour, and, for God’s sake, set in the present-day. She’s already done Doubt and The Help in recent years, and played somewhat similar characters, so maybe she’s attracted to these kinds of dramatic, quietly intense, challenging roles.

But I tell ya, I can’t wait for that TV series she’s attached to star in that Dee Rees (Pariah) is writing – the one in which she plays a brash headmaster of an exclusive prep school.

As I started off saying, I have no idea how she plans to have this novel adapted – whether it’ll be a direct translation from book to screenplay, or if she’ll take some creative liberties in order to create a more, shall we say, *entertaining,* *commercial* story.  As is, it’ll be a tough sell – for both financiers and audiences – and is maybe best appreciated in literary form.

But we’ll see; I haven’t heard anything further on the adaptation since it was first announced 2 years ago – like if there’s a writer attached to pen the script, and who that writer is; directors she has in mind who she might be talking to currently, etc.

Stay tuned…

In the meantime, you can pick up a copy of the book yourself and read it before it becomes a film. It’s only about 340 pages long. You could even read it in one sitting if you had the time.

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