For Colored Boys Who Have Survived Sexual Abuse, Is “For Colored Girls” Enuf?

On November 5, Oprah Winfrey aired the first of a two-part episode on male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Two hundred men stood in the audience, each holding a photograph taken at the age their innocence was stolen by the priest, babysitter, or parent who molested them. Filmmaker Tyler Perry was among them, just two weeks after he had shared his childhood experiences with physical and sexual abuse for the first time with a television audience on Oprah.

Perry initially disclosed his abuse last year in a lengthy letter he addressed to his fans and posted on his website. In the letter, Perry revealed that viewing Lee Daniels’ Precious, a film based on Sapphire’s novel Push, triggered a series of traumatic memories from his childhood, including being brutally beaten numerous times by his father, raped by his friend’s mother and molested by a male church member. Like the character Precious, he said, he used his imagination to escape his body.

Perry’s appearances on Oprah coincide with the release of his film For Colored Girls, adapted from Ntozake Shange’s 1975 Obie award-winning play. Perry’s recent airing of his childhood sexual abuse also comes on the heels of several other black men publicly coming out of the closet about childhood sexual abuse.

In September, former church members Maurice Robinson, Anthony Flagg, Jamal Parris and Spencer LeGrande filed suits against the pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, an Atlanta-based megachurch that boasts 25,000 members. The lawsuits charge Long with using his spiritual authority and financial gifts to coerce the young men into sexual relationships when they were teenagers. Last week, Long formally denied the allegations of sexual misconduct and described himself to the Atlanta Journal Constitution as a “bold revolutionary spiritual leader” who emphasizes “outreach to men, reinforcing to men the importance of partnering with a ministry that will grow them spiritually.”

Even before Long publicly addressed the charges, many of his church members rallied to his defense. It was during an interview with three of those members that CNN anchor Don Lemon made an impromptu on-air disclosure that he too was a survivor of pedophilia. The “buzzwords” Long’s accusers used in their accounts resonated with Lemon’s experience, he said:

Those are the things that [abusers] do, the language, ‘This doesn’t make you gay, if you do this.’ So when someone starts to say that, you start to perk and say, ‘ho.’ Four people have said the same exact story and using the same language. How do people come up with those stories?

Lemon had never discussed his abuse on television and didn’t confide in his mother about it until he was 30. Lemon, like most men and particularly African American men, did not want to talk about his abuse at the hand of another man. He tweeted after the CNN interview, “I had no idea I’d say that on national TV. It just came out. Sadly, it’s the truth for so many young men.”

According to recent statistics, childhood sexual abuse is a truth for about 1 in 6 men. The courageous admissions of the former New Birth members, Lemon and Perry have the potential to comfort other male survivors and to let them know they’re not alone. Except for Finding Fish, Antwone Fisher’s stirring memoir that was brought to the big screen by Denzel Washington, there are few to no cultural representations of black male trauma and sexual abuse. It is not surprising, then, that black women’s stories of abuse strike an emotional chord with Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry. What is striking, however, is that rather than spearhead projects that illuminate young black men’s abuse, both Daniels and Perry have bolstered their power and influence in the industry through black women’s stories.

Black men directing films that highlight black women’s trauma is not necessarily a bad thing, but in the case of For Colored Girls, the bodies of black women become instruments to bolster Perry’s credibility as a serious film maker and to provide catharsis for his abused-child self, at the same time that his muscle in Hollywood makes it possible for him to greenlight his own version of For Colored Girls after writer and director Nzingha Stewart (now an executive producer of the film) had already drafted a script and brokered a deal with Lionsgate. In a post-film discussion with at least 40 women in attendance, journalist Esther Armah described Perry’s strong-arming tactics as “molesting on the big screen via his power.” Performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones intones similarly,

On some very deep and real level it continues the sort of assault on the work that greeted it at its beginning–coming ironically from someone who claims to have been inspired by it.

A number of critics and audience members lambasted Shange’s play for purportedly portraying black men in a negative light. Perry’s film has reignited these discussions and provoked cries for “somebody/anybody” to “sing a black [boy’s] song.”

While black women’s works have helped Perry to find his voice and speak his pain, he effectively silenced a black woman’s opportunity to represent our shared experiences. The unfortunate consequence of Perry “walking off wid alla our stuff” is that we are left with a film that makes moralistic judgments about black women’s sexuality and diminishes the messages of empowerment and healing that make Shange’s text an old friend we return to again and again–whenever we feel like the rainbow just isn’t enuf.

Tyler Perry Photo via Wikicommons user Sgt. Michael Connors under Creative Commons 3.0.

Comments

  1. Ken Capers says:

    I'm not a Tyler Perry apologist, but there are some questionable premises here. Anyone who even has a cursory understanding of the film industry knows how many permutations film projects experience. The projects change hands many times, from inception to completion, from director to producer. Even when deals are on the table, better deals — different deals come along and things change. Film is largely about acquisition and competition. That's the business.

    To criticize and characterize Perry as a molestor for being a shrewd businessman is a poor and problematic analogy. Besides wanting to gain credibility as a serious filmmaker, could it be Tyler actually felt he could, given the chance, do justice to the material? Is it possible, he was excited at the opportunity and used his weight/power to get that opportunity? To point out, Tyler profits from the bodies of Black women is to an extent true.

    However, it's equally, if not more true, even though he is to a degree guilty of wrong-headed empathy and ironic sexism (women too often portrayed as needing male rescue), Tyler does think about women, empathize, and care deeply about Black women. Can we say that about anyone else currently making films who has access. His whole oeuvre, no matter how outlandish, comical, and sometimes embarrassingly minstrel, clearly testifies that he loves Black people and is a champion for women. Now having said that, can anyone really blame him for his interests? Should, by virtue, of being male, Tyler simply not have tried to make this film? Tyler has never put out fluff and denied it. He didn't start out trying to be an artist. I won't fault him for wanting to become one and working harder and harder to make better work which has more range, complexity and subtlety.

    Another troubling aspect of the argument here is the implicit trust in Lions Gate? What makes LionsGate more appealing and appropriate? Is this company somehow female and more sensitive to this project? I mean, really, why is Lions Gate preferable? And to characterize Tyler's acquisition as molestation or violation is extreme, and overlooks, in this cas, the actual playwright apparently was complicit. The rather obvious reason Shange went with Tyler was she was made an Executive Producer which meant more money and input. So here are the apparent implications — a) anyone but Tyler who should apparently commit cinematic seppeku b) it doesn't matter that Shange, the actual author, got a less lucrative deal from Lion's Gate not that she chose to go with Tyler.

    Most troubling are the unsupported and inexplicable claims that Tyler silenced Black women, made moralistic judgments, and diminished Shange's work. These are strong claims which lack persuasiveness or credibility since the writer apparently feels detailed explanation isn't needed, and that as readers we will just accept those claims uncritically. I'm willing to listen but I can't mind read.

    I understand that ostensibly Tyler was not qualified to do this film, but in my estimation, he surprised and did far better than I thought, and he deserves some credit, begrudging or otherwise.

    I think a major implied issue here is the absence of Black women in power as directors, writers, studio owners. Since Tyler is an advocate for Black women, a truly revolutionary thing he could do is mentor, produce, and give other Black artists, especially women, the chance to produce, write, and direct films because no matter how much he loves women, he can never be one. And speaking for women is not the same thing as women speaking for themselves.

    When Tyler understands that, it will be far more interested to see what and who his studio promotes and gives access.

  2. Ken Capers says:

    Couple of things — I misread. I see Shange is not an executive producer but Stewart who shared the same first name. And I noted the comments on molestation and assault are not actually the authors. Presumably, however the author, does agree.

    My fundamental position doesn't change. However, all I said about Shange getting a better deal is clearly wrong so the implications I drew predicated on that mis-read are moot.

    I sill don't see Tyler's muscling in as such a horrible thing and outside of Antwon Fisher how many books or stories are there of male sexual molestation for Tyler or Daniels to spearhead. As Oprah's recent shows graphically explained, all abuse victims suffer and many keep silent. Men, however, due to the homosexual stigma take even longer which explains the dearth of representation of male molestation. And it's worth noting, Fisher is molested by a woman which is not less horrible but arguably might be easier to acknowledge than being violated by another male. It's valid to suggest they spearhead those kinds of projects but convenient to overlook those stories aren't being written and may not be easy to find.

    And can we cut Tyler some slack ? He may be using women's pain to discuss and handle his own, which is problematic, but can any of us look him in the face and demand he write about something so personally traumatizing. Maybe he'll get there and quit "using" women as suggested, but I can recall a time women were grateful to have anyone, anyone at all, take up their problems and try to validate them.

    In the urgency to have women-written work, we don't have to fault this man who has at least tried. And, while those of us in the academy might note these lurking and true complexities, Tyler has, in his own way, championed and EMPOWERED lots of women who responded emotionally, not with intellectually criticism, to what he put up on the screen. Let's not lose that truth in the midst of everything else there is to say about Tyler.

  3. I don't share the criticisms levelled at Shange's original play, but am extremely concerned that Perry is using it as a vanity vehicle cum commercially funded self-therapy exercise. I also take issue with Perry's agenda with African ('black') men. Pathologising African men is an endemic cultural motif in the USA and co-opting the contributions of African men themselves in doing so is a way of legitimising this phenomenon. I won't be contributing to the vast profits this movie will undoubtedly make.

  4. I understand black people sometimes. We complain that people don't tell our stories and then when someone steps up to tell our stories we slam them for doing so. I know we need to talk about black men stories in our community but now we are talking about black womens' stories…black men your stories will come. Tyler P. thank you for telling our stories.

  5. I have long felt a sheer sadness with cinematic systems, both independent and Hollywood, that seem to think black men and/or white men are the only ones who can tell black women’s stories. We saw this in the ‘80s with “The Color Purple” (1985), when Steven Spielberg directed Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

    One could easily argue there weren’t any noted black women filmmakers in the ‘80s, to which I’d ask, what about Euzhan Palcy, a Sorbonne trained filmmaker from Martinique? In France she’d already won numerous international awards with her first film “Sugar Cane Alley” (1983), which she followed up with “A Dry White Season” (1989).

    Now there are at least a handful of well known black women filmmakers who could have taken on the directing of “For Colored Girls.”

    What about Julie Dash (“Daughter of the Dust”)? Cheryl Dunye (“Watermelon Woman”)? Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou” and “Talk to Me”)? Gina Prince Bythewood, (“Love and Basketball,” and “The Secret Life of Bees”)?

    I made this list and the question that might surface now is, who can get the project green lit, or who can produce it themselves? The answers are Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry.

    But here’s the skinny on creating opportunities—it would be great if men (black, white, and colored) could see beyond themselves, their pain, and open a door or two by executive producing and green lighting films about black women’s lives that are directed by someone who’s actually lived, laughed, cried, survived in a woman’s skin. Everyone needs a champion.

    Leona Beasley
    Arts and Culture Columnist
    Tarrytown Patch

  6. Thanks for writing this, Jennifer. I think your wondering why these black men are unable to tell the story of black is so important. It's unnerving that we like in a country that so easily digests black female trauma.

  7. Kimberly Brown says:

    While I agree with Ken and am persuaded that Perry does care about black women, I can't really cut him some slack. I no longer have patience for the ways in which directors are butchering the literature of black women. I will also agree that he did better with the film than I thought — but that's not saying much. I am growing very weary of Perry. Quite frankly, he was not the right director for this movie. There is enough evidence to suggest that Perry did strong arm his way on the project, and in an industry that has a dearth of black women directors, that's just unacceptable. Much of what passed as melodrama was greeted with laughter during my viewing of For Colored Girls with an all black audience in attendance. At first I thought that they simply didn't get it — but have come to believe that the failure is on Perry's part rather than the audiences. Finally, what needs to be dealt with is his cheap shot at gay men by interjecting the well-worn trope of the down-low brother responsible for injecting aids into the black community with his shady sexual antics. I understand his need to work out his childhood traumas, but not at the expense of cannonical black female texts and black gay men.

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