Am I The Only Feminist Who Liked Perry’s “For Colored Girls”?

I doubt that I am, and judging from the mostly black female audience that filled the theater where I watched Tyler Perry’s film adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s celebrated “choreopoem,” I believe the word-of-mouth among black women is that Perry got more things right than wrong in presenting the classic narrative on black women’s blues.

Other Ms. reviewers, such as Mako Fitts and Linda Villarosa, point out some crucial problems with Perry’s take–from homophobia to a conservative dismissal of positive black female sexuality to a simplistic portrayal of black men. Over at The Root, Salamisha Tillet argues that Perry severely undermines black feminism through his negative portrayal of Janet Jackson’s character, Jo, a black professional woman.

I can’t help but wonder, though, at the chorus of critics not previously invested in black feminist issues who gave the film overwhelming negative reviews. From Roger Ebert to the early reviews offered in Variety and Hollywood Reporter to Courtland Milloy who wishes to speak “for black men who have considered homicide” after watching the movie, reviewers have condemned the film as “cluttered,” “man-hating” and a “train wreck.”

What none of the critics–feminist or otherwise–pointed out was the transformation that occurred when Perry grounded the abstract poetry of Shange in cinematic realism. On-stage monologues about secret abortions and abuse allow us to go with our imaginations and feel the poems, but seeing these scenes through candid film shots was downright traumatizing. Whatever art and lyricism are conveyed in poetry, there is nothing like the gritty reality of the motion picture. While Shange’s words offer great humor and great pain, along with rainbows and rhythmic movements in jazz and salsa, Perry’s adaptation goes a step further by transporting the dance and the words into concrete scenarios played by concrete characters with names, addresses, relatives, partners and careers. The colors of the rainbow are literally missing in these women’s dark, six-block universe. There is no abstract thought to wish away the pain, making quite manifest the opening words:

i can’t hear anythin / but maddening screams / & the soft strains of death / & you promised me / you promised me… / somebody/anybody / sing a black girl’s song / bring her out / to know herself / to know you / but sing her rhythms / carin/struggle / hard times

I can only conclude that many in America are still unwilling or unable to hear “a black girl’s song” that has been stripped of abstractions. This reminds me of something James Baldwin said a long time ago:

It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear.

We may appreciate Shange’s words, influenced by that great American tradition known as black music, but we don’t always appreciate the pain (nor do we want to bear it). Whatever “protective sentimentality” we may want to bring to a film version of For Colored Girls, it gets ripped apart here–and we don’t like it.

Which is why it is easier to dismiss this pain by calling it “soap opera” or “melodrama” or whatever other adjective we’ve come to browbeat the “low art” of folk and/or women’s expression. Tyler Perry’s infamous reputation easily becomes the excuse to condemn the film as a “cheap” version of Shange’s now-elite art. But Shange’s reaction to an interviewer’s question about whether Perry “cheapened” her choreopoem shows another side of the story. Her response? “Darling, my work used to be for free.”

Indeed, Perry’s original appeal to the masses–his use of popular language and his bravery in approaching the Morality Tale–brings him closer to other great artists and cultural forces than some would like to admit. Like a great medievalist (think Chaucer), Perry has captured the “vulgar,” something of the “unsophisticated” common folk. It is the same subject matter that has driven the Nigerian film industry, or “Nollywood,” to become the third largest in the world: a reliance on folklore, myths and religious moralism. And it is this same connection to “folk” that marks the early success of Ntozake Shange, whose folk spellings and Ebonics-layered language brought an honesty and realness that spoke to so many then and continues to speak to so many today.

There is a brilliant scene in the movie that cuts through the artificial distinctions between “high” and “low” art and fuses Shange’s lyrical abstractions with Perry’s concrete representations. Shange’s “Pyramid” poem is performed as an opera and intercut disturbingly with a scene of rape. Sometimes words alone cannot capture such trauma–only music and primal screams suffice. The emotive release this scene achieves demonstrates that when poets like Shange can find the right words to shatter the silence, when filmmakers like Perry can find the visuals to dramatize the pain and when phenomenal actors like the cast assembled here can bring alive image and sound through the power of performance, together they successfully sing the black girl’s song. What we must now determine is how many of us can hear it.

Photo from For Colored Girls Official Movie Site

Comments

  1. Beautifully put. I am so tired of hearing the negative feedback on this film. Thank you for breaking it down the way you did.

  2. Thank you. I have yet to make the time to see the film or read the reviews. I love the play. As an actress I have performed some of the pieces. I am glad that yours is the first commentary I have read.

  3. Great post, Janell! Folks were attacking my black feminist credentials because I liked the movie. As a matter of fact, I was contemplating a similar post! Good work, sis.

  4. It's hard to think of a white male movie critic more invested in black feminist issues than Roger Ebert, whose spouse is African American and who has actually done a lot to promote films by black women. That's not to say he got this one right.

  5. I’ve read the book, attended the play and now have watched the movie.

    In my opinion, there wasn’t something wrong with the story more than there was something wrong with how Tyler Perry brought it to life. The original work emerged during the feminist movement where the theme of the day was RESISTANCE at all cost. Resistance to practically everything male dominated, ordained and manufactured. . . . those women would not be backing down in the least to their circumstances (sometimes to their own detriment).

    For those of you that keep arguing that Tyler Perry is just resurrecting a story from the past, that’s where you’re wrong. This is a period piece and should have been written as such because that’s where the comparisons end. Yes some of the themes transcend time, but when you use 1960-70’s (feminist) ideology with 2010 values and vice versa something has to give.

    In 2010, enlightened men and women are well aware that they contribute to their own circumstances with their bad choices and poor behavior. If women wanted this to be a movie JUST about women, men should have been left out of the script. There was enough room for interpretation in the original work to accomplish that.

    Did we need a scene of the little girl losing her virginity in the back of a car to understand that it happened? NO. Did we see the man that Kerry Washington caught the STD from to make her sterile? NO. Did we see the man who mentally abused Goldberg and molested Newton? NO, but we did experience his presence and the symptoms of his abuse as if he were in the room. A creative story teller could have brought all these stories to life and kept the emphasis where it belonged on women healing themselves.

    Instead, in another turn away from the original work, the men became part of the story itself. Once that happened, he might as well have assigned those brothers their own color designations and started viewing things from their perspective. If they’re indeed part of the story and the everyday woes of black women, then they MUST be part of the solution.

    I suppose there was a lot of room for interpretation, but most of the symbolism with the colors, music, dance, poetry were gone. I honestly would have gone a different way with it. I would have juxtaposed it between 1975 and 2010 showing how things have changed and how they remain the same. Even more if you're going to add to the original work, a great opportunity was missed to talk about HIV/AIDS and other STD's that are ravaging our communities because almost every women in the script had the potential to have been infected. If you're going to change the script, change it in a meaningful way and bring them together not for a graduation party, but a community counseling session.

    However if you want to take it back to the self healing of women, leave men out of the equation altogether, we have enough movies that engage in finger pointing without offering any real solutions. What were the solutions for this movie? Put him in jail, don’t take him back, if you emasculate him check your HIV status, don’t invite him up to your apartment before asking his views on Mike Tyson v. Desiree Washington, if you’re involved with a good man, its okay to wait until after you’ve married to let him know you’re sterile because of a STD because he’ll forgive you and . . . . . . . most importantly no matter how bad it gets, suicide is a no no!

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