Can Tyler Perry Pull Off a Black Feminist Masterpiece?

http://www.harlemloves.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/For-Colored-Girls-566x377.jpg The mediasphere has been buzzing with skepticism since Variety announced over a year ago that Tyler Perry would write, direct and produce the adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. The film is the first production for Perry’s 34th Street Films (a production division of Tyler Perry Studios) which was created to expand the Perry brand into new markets: read more mainstream, mostly white audiences. It’s also Perry’s first attempt at tackling a serious piece of Black women’s history, as Shange’s work emerges out of a significant time for Black women writers, among them Michele Wallace, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Barbara Smith, Nikki Giovanni and Toni Cade Bambara.

Perry is the most financially successful Black filmmaker in Hollywood ever, named in 2008 by Forbes magazine as a next-generation billionaire. He made his fortune telling stories that appeal to working and middle-class Black audiences, branding them as representative of contemporary hard-working Black life in America, with an emphasis on Christian ethics and the heteronormative family. His narratives have been described as uncritical, one-dimensional, trifling, reductionist and frivolous, failing to capture the nuances of life for poor and working class Blacks, particularly around issues of sexuality and spirituality. New Yorker film critic Hilton Als likened Perry to a preacher who entertains, “hardworking black Christians who wanted, at least for a couple of hours, to be distracted from the truth about their failure to advance in their own country.”

Perry’s films include Daddy’s Girls (2007), Why Did I Get Married (2007) and Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010), along with the series of films which revolve around his most popular character, Madea–Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), Madea’s Family Reunion (2006) and Madea Goes to Jail (2009). Als describes Madea as,

a six-foot-five, homespun, truth-spouting, pot-smoking, politically incorrect middle-aged black matriarch, wears a silver wig, spectacles and a series of interchangeable floral-print dresses. … As the sometimes beleaguered go-to person for any number of younger relatives who find themselves in bad marriages, broke or incapable of managing their children, the take-charge Madea busts ass while brandishing her handgun, fighting to impose emotional order in her world.

Madea is part of a legacy of Black entertainers performing this Sapphire qua Mammy character in drag, such as Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, Jamie Foxx’s Wanda, Martin Lawrence’s Sheneneh and pro-basketball player Larry Johnson’s Grandmama in Converse shoe commercials. She is the Black matriarch–a fast-talking, lip-smacking, head-rolling, finger-snapping, fierce women who, when crossed, will cut you in a hot second.

Ms. blogger Courtney Young criticized Perry’s depiction of the Black female characters in his films as a reflection of a “conservative gender politics that eschew a more progressive, inclusive agenda.” Yet, what is most damaging about his characterizations is that they are coming not from the lived experiences of Black women, but from the mediated gaze of a Black man. Madea, funny and keepin-it-real as she may be, is still a Black man’s second-hand drag performance of Black matriarchy. Black women do not have the same access to the resources and opportunities to tell stories about our lives, and classic Black feminist texts adapted from the perspective of a man is problematic.

Some of the most virulent critiques of Perry’s work center around the debate over representations of class difference within the African-American community. In a 2009 Entertainment Weekly article, Benjamin Svetkey, Margeaux Watson and Alynda Wheat suggested that Perry’s films were made for “churchgoing, working-class black women, not urban hipsters (or tenured professors).” Black cultural critic Todd Boyd of USC argued that all of Perry’s films “demonize educated, successful African Americans,” which plays on longstanding issues of class conflict within the African American community. Many remember the infamous public feud between Spike Lee and Tyler Perry (Lee compared Perry’s films to Amos and Andy). But who are we–with our playa-hater degrees (PhDs) and elitist artistic standards–to judge what the masses find tasteful? We have to resist the temptation to form dichotomies between artists whose work runs the gamut from quality to coonery. Is Lee’s character Mars Blackmon, who was hawking expensive Nike kicks to kids in the ‘hood who were killing themselves for a pair of sneakers, any less degrading than Tyler Perry’s Madea?

Against the backdrop of harsh criticisms of Perry’s films comes the controversy over the screenplay of For Colored Girls, which involves Black female filmmaker Nzingha Stewart. In an interview with Shadow and Act, Stewart admitted that she optioned the play with the support of Ntozake Shange, completed a draft of the script and secured several high profile actresses–including Angela Bassett, Alicia Keys and Sanaa Lathan, none of whom appear in the final version of the film. While the details of the film rights remain hidden with the parties involved, Stewart will receive executive producer credits on the film. Speculation aside, Stewart is the only Black female producer on the project, and Tyler Perry maintains full writing credits for the screenplay.

Can Perry evolve from master of the chitlin circuit to one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers with For Colored Girls? Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, seems to think so, albeit not necessarily on Perry’s merits alone but on the written work itself. For Colored Girls has been reproduced on college campuses and in community theaters for more than 20 years and is part of the Black feminist zeitgeist. I agree with Neal that Shange’s powerful words make it possible for even a commercially successful entertainer like Tyler Perry to produce a compelling work of art.

In the foreword of the 1977 edition of For Colored Girls, Shange suggests that Black women must internalize an “exaggerated sense of freedom” in order to live out the most authentic version of ourselves. Should we, as women, focus our energies on critiquing one man’s version of our narratives? We should be creating spaces to tell our stories in ways that are truthful, healing and break conventional understandings about our lives. Meanwhile, Shange isn’t waiting around for her voice to be represented:

I am on the other side of the rainbow/picking up the pieces of

days spent waitin for the poem to be heard/while you listen/

I have other work to do/

This is the first in a series of posts leading up to the release of the film For Colored Girls.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrfPWkGZNfU

Photos From Very Perry Films and The Savvy Sista.

Comments

  1. Anti-Intellect says:

    I wish we could appreciate the film adaption of "For Colored Girls" for what it is, a collaboration, not a solo effort by Mr. Perry. While it's true that Tyler Perry is directing, the screenplay was written by Ntozake Shange, and upcoming director Nzhinga Stewart. I'm confident and hopeful that black cinema will benefit from this coalition of talent, rather than falter from it. I think team efforts and collaborations like this one should be the new template for black cinema, bringing together prominent directors and talented writers and artist, to produce quality work.

  2. Frances in CA says:

    I'm just an old, white lady who, while I can't take ownership of the issues, notices that Tyler Perry has sometimes had some criticism from African-American activists. I hope he can rise to the challenge thereby increasing the presence in film of important works such as this.

  3. As a creative artist (actress-writer-producer), this is what most resonated with me in this article: "…We should be creating spaces to tell our stories in ways that are truthful, healing and break conventional understandings about our lives…."

    Seeing the original "For Colored Girls" on Broadway more than 30 years ago was profoundly meaningful to me…not just for the stories that were being told, but for the fact that it made it to BROADWAY!!! And it was a critical and financial hit — which meant that OUR stories were finally being recognized for their artistry, universality and commercial viability.

    • I agree we have many talented, diverse stories that need to be shared with a universal audience. We have gifted artists that can communicate our experiences to connect with the world at large. One up and coming author who embodies this spirit is Toriano Porter. Support his latest efforts: The Pride of Park Avenue. The vignettes are truthful and reveal the inner workings of a people trying to survive.

  4. But then it took another 15 years or so for "Waiting to Exhale" to hit the screen — Yay!!!! Another commercial success! But after that, Black women were STILL left holding their breath for more stories that "break conventional understandings about our lives."

    I speak from first-hand experience of fighting-the-good-fight in the trenches of the entertainment industry for more than three decades in series-regular roles both in daytime and prime-time television. And just when you think that progress is being made: for every step forward we get pushed another step back…to square one.

  5. Most recently, my writing, partner Iona Morris (daughter of Greg Morris of the 70's hit TV series, "Mission Impossible") and I wrote, produced and performed a play that ran in LA for 9 months to great reviews and packed houses. Titled "M.O.I.S.T.!"– it's a sexistential musical comedy celebration of "seasoned" women that attracted audiences of women (and men) of all ethnicities and sexual persuasions. But it couldn't attract the attention of any of the "industry" folk. Ever the optimist, it took my (Jewish) agent to make me look at the harsh reality: "I tried my damndest to get people to come down there, Mariann," he said. "And it hurts me to have to say this because I really thought we'd moved beyond it…but I think they thought of it as a black show and just weren't interested."

  6. The more things change, the more they stay the same? I hope not. In any case, as an artist and a storyteller, I'll keep fighting the good fight. Meanwhile, let's all (and I do mean ALL not just "US") go see "For Colored Girls" opening weekend as a show of support

  7. I recently saw Tyler Perry's Family Reunion show in NYC. The show was indeed entertaining but in formulated way that lacked the depths of human nuance and had noting to do with the female experience. The rants of Madea over simplify the way it is and reveal Mr.Perry's perspective as a millionaire bachelor. The emptiness lies in that – I did not feel or get the vibe of anything uplifting happening for the audience. There was nothing new to hear, nothing really inspiring; the tell it how it is rants were canned wisdom.

    The issue lies in that with all his money, resources, reach and ability to connect and reach, Mr. Perry has the opportunity to be truely great – not in the wealth he accumulates but in the opportunity he has for inspiration and challenging people to be best they can be. His lack of authenticity makes me wish for but not have high hopes for the movie.

    I hope that cinema will benefit from the collaboration, as mentioned above because in it, there is opportunity for women's voices to be heard. In any event, his is only one interpretation, nothing more. It does not have to effect our story at all.

  8. The original author saw the film I read in another interview and she was pleased with Perry's interpretation of her work.

  9. Skeptical says:

    I'm going to support the film, but I feel that a Black woman should have directed it. Stewart wrote the script (and was originally supposed to direct it, but I suspect that Lionsgate (or whomever was offering up the distribution deal) wanted Tyler Perry on it. I don't know what the back story is, but the wrong director can mess up of the initial vision of the screenwriter. I hope that doesnt happen with this masterpiece. I am curious, however, why Mr. Perry felt the need to take all the writing credits when he didnt even write it. I know he likes the spotlight, but dayum.

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