For Tyler Perry Who Has Made the Movie When the Stage Play Is Enuf
The latest Tyler Perry stage-to-film adaptation, “For Colored Girls” (based on playwright and poet Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf), unsurprisingly shows the world more of Perry’s issues than his subjects’. The use of someone else’s words throws into stark relief the devices he relies upon in his films—pandering to a self-satisfied Christian black majority through the harsh comeuppance he serves its transgressors, as well as a healthy disdain for the “so you think you better than me?” Black bourgeois. The result is that now I have to write a review about Perry rather than the film, which I relished watching but wanted to love, as it is ostensibly for and about me. Foolish of me to forget that Tyler Perry makes films about Tyler Perry. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, next time, just call it “For Tyler Perry” so as not to mislead any more Black women than you already have.
To be fair, when speaking with Whoopi Goldberg, the film’s Alice/Woman in White on ABC’s The View, Perry said that he was asked to bring this work to the screen many times and was initially afraid of this script. I can only assume his fear came from the thought of having to portray Shange’s strident individual voice through the lens of the melodrama he creates. If he had chosen to serve the language he might have adapted the text to scenarios that wouldn’t feel so played out—constantly reinforcing that vision of the sad Black woman singing her same sad Black songs about the sad-ass queue of Black men waiting to do her wrong. While the rape, abortion, abuse and abandonment that bring about these laments does come from the play, the musicality, sexuality, identity, politics and practical, personal spirituality that would prevent the story from becoming a Law and Order-inspired horror show is conspicuously missing. And the cut-and-paste job Perry does to create narrative in a non-linear text requires a suspension of disbelief that the film does not quite merit, and gives his Colored Girls histrionics rather than voices. In creating something epic out of this work, Perry forces his women to wear broad flat masks.
The liberties Perry takes in assigning the text to his characters transforms multi-layered people into stock representations. Phylicia Rashad, as Gilda, serves as our Virgil in this poetic world, our guide through Dante’s inferno—a 12-flight walkup of abandoned hope. As the stories progress, you begin to thank God that Clair Huxtable is just next door, and able to give you some semblance of hope and security in a world that is clearly seeking to devour any voices or light that try to escape its vortex. Suddenly (and unironically, might I add?) the phone of the woman sitting behind me sounds, and that perennial battle of what we want and what we expect flares up again. I’d like to think it’s the sound of her turning it off. Come on Black people—prove me wrong. (Ah, there is no loathing like self-loathing, is there?) But, despite auspicious beginnings, Perry unravels his storytelling to reveal that moralizing is still more important to him than artistry, and the woman’s cell phone goes off halfway through the film, which she, of course, answers, during one of the rare moments of character dimensionality in this film.
Any character who dares to have sexual expression meets with a swift backhand. The raw and wild Tangie/Woman in Orange (played with the visceral verité of a jazz master by Newton) is swimming in it. The film opens with her curtly ending a one-night stand to write her poetry. We revel in loving her voice and hating her attitude, but are forced to recoil later as it is all reduced to confused “crazy girl” mumblings. And at least we get to hear what she has to say. The good girls mostly suffer in silence. Yasmine/The Woman in Yellow (played delicately and adeptly by Akina Noni Rose) commits the crime of living vibrantly and must pay for this trespass dearly. And Kerry Washington (Kelly/Woman in Blue) manages to get off easy in the film by just becoming infertile from some sex she had over a decade ago. And even that character was meant to speak of an abortion that resulted, but then she wouldn’t be a good girl in Perry’s world view.
Our Rich Bitch Woman in Red, which Janet Jackson makes radiant within two-dimensional limitations, is the one who is supposed to be at her reluctant man’s doorstep, half-broken with a potted plant and the assiduous love with which she has watered it (a complexly triumphant moment in the text that was nearly trampled over on in the screen version). So when she says “I loved you on purpose”, we have already seen how much she’s fallen into by accident. We get that her love is complicated, and don’t need the heavy-handed coughing that spans the film, signifying HIV, to make it so.
Perry is simply out of his depth with the true grit of these stories, and he magnifies them grossly, as would a fearful child, for whom sexuality means shame and death, and humor means adjusting a fat suit. What could be a nuanced dialogue about black sexuality becomes a simply sexist. The gentlemen don’t get off easy either. Every man in the film shows up just in time to be abusive, denigrating or dismissive of his female counterpart and then leave—that is, all except for Perry’s working-class hero that comes in the form of police officer and Kelly’s husband CSI’s Hill Harper (Perry didn’t even bother to change his on-screen occupation—to prevent confusion?). He somehow manages to love and respect his wife in this world where NONE of the other men do. Sorry brothers, I know it’s 2010 but you still ain’t shit.
The most powerful presentation the film makes is that of the power and beauty in this collection of actresses. To be able to watch Rashad, Goldberg, Devine, Jackson, Newton and Washington with Elise, Rose and relative newcomer Thompson, not only provides enough box office bang for your 12 bucks, but a testament to the body of work and talent these women have built. They glow onscreen, and that is enough to bear witness to—a unity and power greater than all the words shared between them. Perry’s version of their story turns down the contrast and the brightness onscreen, so as to give us only a few congealed and oversaturated hues of the rainbow. He then superficially shoves in all of the sisterhood, self-respect and hope at the end, trying to “Baby, I’m sorry” his characters’ out of their power and the complexity, in exchange for the promise of gold statuettes at the end of the film season.
I didn’t set out wanting to write a thesis paper about this film. But my educated black ass had to find a way to tell Mr. Perry that I am sick of his being the voice that represents mine, despite all the other voices out there to the contrary. I am sick of his minstrelsy show of big black women (and let’s not forget Misters Lawrence and Murphy in this) mocking, misrepresenting and replacing big black women on the screen. I resent that with all of his clout, he is the one speaking For Colored Girls and has the nerve to force himself on what they have to say. This film was not For me, or even about me. That poetry at the opening of the work still calls out for someone to sing a “black girl’s song.” After all is said and done, the film is still absolutely worth watching for the power of the language and ideas, but the Colored Girls are still singing their damned songs and it still feels like no one is hearing them. Only now it is because of that satisfying Oscar speech underscoring that plays beneath the righteous indignation and tears. Wait, you’re hearing it right now, as you’re reading this, aren’t you? Dammit.
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