The Good News: Madea’s Not a Colored Girl

The bad news is you can’t escape the long arm of Madea in the new film For Colored Girls. Tyler Perry’s Madea, whose righteous indignation and compulsive moralizing are warped with tired tropes of Judeo-Christianism, provides the backdrop for interpreting the characters in his film version of the Ntozake Shange “choreopoem”. Phylicia Rashad’s character Gilda (a creation of Perry, not Shange) embodies Madea as the matriarch and griot who looks out for the trouble women in her building. She is the incarnation of the Black female elder, minus the coonery and drag of Madea. Even with the stellar performances of A-list actresses like Rashad, the film confirmed expectations of poor narrative translation and cinematic quality.

I had the privilege to see For Colored Girls among a predominantly Black female audience at a pre-screening in Seattle hosted by the Real Colored Girls CollectiveLangston Hughes African American Film FestivalSeattle University and other community organizations.  An audience of more than 500 stood in line for over an hour on one of the wettest days of the year to see a film that is already generating Oscar buzz. The screening was followed by a lively community dialogue that included the voices of Black feminists such as Dr. Maxinne Mimms (pictured below), Real Colored Girls C. Davida Ingram and Christa Bell, blogger Sable Verity and spoken word poet Storme Webber.

Image by Inye Wokoma. null

According to Deadline, For Colored Girls was third among the top ten grossing films in North America on its opening day, Friday, and is expected to gross $21 million its opening weekend. Black women in particular are going out in droves to support For Colored Girls, since it’s the first film since Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire that centers on the lives of Black women and our communities.

Perry took creative license with his interpretation of Shange’s play, much to the chagrin of my initial hope that if he remained true to the play it would save the film. He not only disconnected the poetry from specific characters (Janet Jackson’s Jo is actually Shange’s Lady in Blue–so what’s up with the red?), but his characterizations of Black women were hyperbolic remnants of played-out archetypes. They fail to breathe life into Shange’s self-determined colored girls.

For Colored Girls must be understood in its connection to Precious and the real-life story of Tyler Perry’s childhood experiences of sexual and physical violence. In the weeks preceding its release, Oprah Winfrey devoted three episodes of her show to issues salient to the film–the “down-low,” Tyler Perry’s story of abuse and 200 men who were molested. While it was transformative for Oprah to use Perry as a catalyst to discuss sexual shame and abuse for men, using him also connects these issues to representations of Black sexuality and to the Black women of For Colored Girls. It is as if this film is a way for Perry (and his audience) to process legacies of sexual violence through the continued victimization of Black women and our sexualities. ‘Victim’ is not the appropriate characterization of Shange’s colored girls.

The themes of suffering, lack and the damnation of sexuality for Black women are rampant in For Colored Girls in a way not embodied in Shange’s original play. Juanita, Shange’s Lady in Green (played here by Loretta Devine), personified the neck-snapping Sapphire archetype with the trifling player boyfriend, while Yasmine/Lady in Yellow (Anika Noni Rose) embodied the beauty and joy of a dancer whose light faded as the result of rape. Two of the most damaged characters in the film are Crystal (Lady in Brown), played by Kimberly Elise, and Tangie (Lady in Orange), played by Thandie Newton. They represent historical legacies of trauma vis-à-vis Black men. Kerry Washington’s Kelly (Lady in Blue) seemingly has it all–a modest lifestyle as a social welfare case manager with a detective husband (Hill Harper). Yet, her inability to conceive, as the result of a sexually-transmitted disease contracted in her past, sends the message that women pay a price for the sexual indiscretions of youth. This is also crystalized through the character of Nyla (Lady in Purple), played by newcomer Tessa Thompson. She celebrates her first sexual experiences among her girlfriends only to have to endure the pain of a back-alley abortion by a slovenly, hot-mess of a drunken abortionist (another creation of Perry) played by Macy Gray.

Tangie had the potential to be the most complicated character in the film. She is the tragic mulatta whose biraciality, wanton sexuality and condemnation by her hyper-religious black mother Alice/Lady in White (played by Whoopi Goldberg), produced a troubled soul determined to combat the horrors of her childhood molestation by her white father. But her open sexuality is not empowering within this context. I wanted to love her sexual freedom, but Perry’s insistent moralizing forced me to interpret her liberatory Black female sexuality as a byproduct of abuse.

Perry’s moralizing is also evident in his manufacturing of the ‘down-low’ brotha, Carl (Jo’s husband), played by Omari Hardwick. Perry’s license with Shange’s original work was appalling. Lady in Blue’s description of her man as “mean/low-down/triflin” is turned into Jo’s confession of her husband as “low-down/down-low” to legitimate Perry’s characterization of him as a Black man who enjoys having sex with men. By conjuring a fear of Black male homosexuality, Perry further personifies gay male sexuality as something to be feared, loathed and ultimately disdained, especially since Jo implies that she contracted HIV as a result of his homosexual trysts. Given Perry’s admission on Oprah of being conflicted about his own sexuality, this narrative seems to be a way for him to resolve his own moral and sexual ambiguity. This kind of creative license has damaging effects on representations of Black sexuality, and unnecessarily furthers an anti-gay politic.

While I believe wholly in artistic freedom, I am also concerned about the economies of storytelling: who’s telling the story, what the content of the narrative is and how the content inhibits a politic of freedom. This film may be Perry’s attempt to get the societal “embrace” (and Hollywood legitimation) that he needs to heal from a history of sexual violence, but this is what makes the film inauthentic for Black women. Instead of interpreting Shange’s work as an epic of self-determination, he uses the backs of her colored girls as a bridge to his own catharsis. When white folks appropriate our stories, we call them culture vultures. So what is Tyler Perry to Black women?

Images by Inye Wokoma.


  1. antiintellect says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this review and I appreciate the critical analysis as opposed to "I hate Tyler Perry." This is the first review that has truly spoken to me the hesitation black women have with the work being appropriated and your attention to detail in terms of dedication to the narrative really resonated with me.

    Also, as a black gay man and feminist I was moved by your concern for the way Perry chose to present black gay male sexuality.

    Thank you for this moving review that has the ability to reach and start a dialog on the film. ♥

  2. This is the most thorough review of what this film really seeks to do. It is Perry's own catharsis on the backs of Shange's colored girls. YES

  3. i have not seen the film, but i really dug this review. the last piece says it all–"Instead of interpreting Shange’s work as an epic of self-determination, he uses the backs of her colored girls as a bridge to his own catharsis. When white folks appropriate our stories, we call them culture vultures. So what is Tyler Perry to Black women?" t

  4. Harriford & Thompson says:

    While we appreciate the political analysis of “For Colored G irls”—which is accurate and righteous—we worry about missing what the film does teach us about Black women survivors of sexual violence. In the film there were several instances where women were able to speak their emotional and intellectual truths at the same time. They were able to simultaneously think and feel about what was happening to them. This is in contrast to so many films where we either see black women sucking it up or dissolving into hysterics . Frequently, people think of survivors first and foremost as victims. The film counters this view by giving us multiple examples of women with tears streaming down their faces while delivering incredibly articulate, politically and historically astute analyses.

    There was something very powerful in the speech that Anika Noni Rose (Yasmine) gave on the hospital gurney when the detective suggested that she might not be able to win a case since she knew the man before he raped her. Her response: nowadays, we are living with a new form of rape (one that was not even considered rape when rape in marriage was still legal) that means that women can never be too careful, can never cook a meal in their own homes, can never be safe. She was appropriately wary of her suitor and yet that didn’t protect her. What a pity, what a loss, to have to question everyone, everywhere, at all times. While we spend most of the film seeing Janet Jackson’s character (Jo) as someone who is only able to live in her mind, when she realized that she had never really seen her assistant’s (Crystal’s) impossible circumstances, she is able to genuinely ask herself, “what kind of person am I?” When Loretta Divine finally threw her intermittent lover out, we see an her integration —her mind and body come together. Even Kimberly Elise’s character (Crystal) whose situation with her children was the most precarious, never agreed to marry her PTSD vet partner. She remained steadfast in her rational response to his demand even as she was also still in love with him.

    The use of Shange’s poetry is what allowed the film to capture that balance, is what enables us, as viewers to have both emotional and intellectual/political responses to the film. While Tyler Perry doesn’t give us the empowerment that we wish for, the film does give us examples of emotionally and intellectually complex women who are, individually and collectively, trying to live full lives.

    One of the most powerful aspects of Shange’s choreopoem is that she saw black women’s subject position as their own—not their story through that of men, or white women, etc. We worry about the extent to which Shange’s choreopoem will now be used as a way to talk about the sexual abuse of Black men, who, with Oprah’s upcoming show, will become the center of attention, while black women will be left out of the frame of reference. We are in a crucial moment now in understanding sexual violence as aimed at both boys and girls. While the particularly of Black women’s trauma needs to be acknowledged, it is possible to do that alongside recognizing the impact of abuse of boy children as well. The reality—that one out of three girls and one out of six boys is sexually abused—makes us appreciate the possibilities for discussion this film may invite.

    We appreciate the reviewer’s (Mako Fitts’) principled critique, particularly her concern about how Perry’s focus on Black women who have been victimized takes us away from the uplifting, survivor energy of Shange’s work—including her celebration of Black women’s sexuality. At the same time, one of the film’s contributions is in giving us three-dimensional understandings of sexual violence and its impact on Black women’s lives. While the film renders almost completely absent positive portrayals of black women’s sexuality, the issue of sexual violence needs not be handled perfectly in order for the film to still be a powerful means of talking about what happens to women’s minds and bodies when they are abused.

  5. I've seen Madea Goes To Jail, Why Did I Get Married?, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea's Family Reunion and your question always popped in my head:

    When white folks appropriate our stories, we call them culture vultures. So what is Tyler Perry to Black women?

    I knew it would be too much to ask someone so shallow to treat the source material with insight, intelligence and heat.

    Tyler Perry continues to be the McDonald's of cinema.

  6. thank you for this review, allowing a critical and artistic lense to it. i did not see the play and you provided me some background information on the characters and how Perry has interpreted and pushed his own agenda.

    one of the themes i felt the movie had was how some of the women are repeatedly putting themselves in abusive relationships, and then they have to take a look at themselves, take some responsibility and find the root of it all to be able to move on. i did struggle with this theme and how you mentioned Perry's morality issues on sexuality.
    although i didn't find the movie empowering, it did allow me to see the pain and trauma many people experience and how it's just complicated and we are complex individuals.

    i felt the movie was showing every african american woman cliche in the book and does make me worry about reinforcing stereotypes and portrayal of african americans. so i had to crack a joke to my friend, "well at least one of them is going off to college."

    • Is it a stereotype that african american women run fashion magazines and are totally removed from the lives of ordinary people? I'm not sure that it is. If anything the best thing this movie has going for it is the fact that it shows the effects of class differences, but also of the possibility to bridge them.
      My view is that this is one of those movies that can be watched more than once and one can see different things. Also different people see it differently. I felt that the movie was too hard on Tangie, but strangely, the woman next to me seeing the movie didn't, and didn't get what I was talking about when I said that it was.

  7. Wonderful and eye-opening.

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