ON TYLER PERRY’S "FOR COLORED GIRLS”
By Kevin Powell
Wednesday, November 10, 2010.
People either love or hate filmmaker Tyler Perry—that much is clear to me. Weeks before I decided to see Perry’s “For Colored Girls” on opening night I could hear the extreme reactions to the fact he was adapting, producing, and directing a film version of Ntozake Shange’s classic 1970s choreopoem/play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf.”
“I think Tyler is the worst filmmaker ever,” one pal of mine said, an amazing actress and writer, who is completely traumatized that Perry was even permitted to touch Shange’s writing.
And then there have been all the pre-film blogs written and passed around which have, in the main, been attempts to prepare viewers, particularly Black women movie goers, for the worst. Indeed, one blog I sampled encouraged women to read Shange’s words first, to go as a group, almost as if bracing themselves for a natural disaster. Another blog demolished Perry as a proprietor of modern-day minstrel shows in real-time Black face. This woman’s blog was so detailed in her point-by-point critiques of Tyler’s pictures, that it set off what appears to be at least 100 responses, most supporting her views, with a few not, and a handful saying she was an extremist, and, better yet, a hater. And this last blog and its comments are from a year ago when it was first announced Perry was tackling Shange’s piece.
(A not-so-humorous side note: From the hardcore reactions to one Tyler Perry, you would think his films have done as much damage to Black America as, say, racism, HIV/AIDS, failing public schools, rampant unemployment, crime, drug dealing and drug abuse, gentrification, the prison-industrial complex, police brutality, Republican right-wingers and the Fox News Channel, ghetto dictatorships and lazy leadership in the form of certain very identifiable Black politicians and Black preachers, corner liquor stores, fast food restaurants, and every other challenge you could name….)
Since then it hasn’t helped that the trailer for the adaptation doesn’t do the actual film any poetic justice. You see Janet Jackson far too much (it is clear Mr. Perry has an acute fascination with Ms. Jackson in spite of her well-meaning but limited acting abilities), and you see a plethora of quick-cut imagery in the film, but unless you’ve closely read the Shange book yourself, or have seen the words interpreted on the stage through the years, you come away from the trailer not really clear what the film narrative is.
As a result I was really torn about watching “For Colored Girls.” First off, I have seen some of Perry’s “Madea” films and, yes, they have made me cringe. How could they not when I know very well the history of Black images in America, how destructive so many of these images have been to our collective spirits, psyches, and bodies, be they mammy, big momma, tragic “mulatto,” gangsta, thug, pimp, prostitute, thief, hustler, or bumbling, stumbling coon or buffoon. If there was a true and intentional balance to what we colored folks are given to digest on television, in movies, in music videos, in video games, and now on the internet, then there would hardly be a whisper about Tyler Perry’s films. And if he had stayed in the urban Black theater scene—our theatrical version of the famous “chitin’ circuit” for Black performers—then no one, save poor or working-class and or church-going Black folks, would probably even know who Perry is today.
But it is precisely because those poor or working-class and or church-going Black folks flock to venues like the Beacon Theater in New York City, every time one of these plays is announced on local urban radio stations, that Tyler Perry is famous and fabulously wealthy. The plays are simplistic, but with enough Black around-the-way humor and morality lessons that serve as a necessary escape from the grind of our daily Black lives. Who would not want that? And is it little surprise that Perry’s career first skyrocketed during the Bush II years, and continues to be an entertainment outlet for the souls of many Black folks during The Great Recession? No, he is not a great writer, not a great director, not a great actor. Not yet, and I have no clue if he will ever be any of those things. But Tyler Perry is an astute entrepreneur, a marketing genius, someone who has filled a huge void for working-class Black America, for church-going Black America, with film after film. Up until “For Colored Girls,” Perry has not pretended to be an artist, or a super-talented director in the vein of Julie Dash, Martin Scorsese, or Kasi Lemmons.
No, what Perry has done is exactly what pioneering African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux did from 1919 to 1948: give Black people themselves on screen on a regular basis, something that, as evidenced by Perry’s huge box-office receipts with each film (including approximately $20 million this past opening weekend for “For Colored Girls”), we desperately crave. Indeed just as Oscar Micheaux steadily fed the Black masses with his 44 films and 7 novels (including one national bestseller) over those 29 years, Perry too has been relentless with his productivity and his work ethic, churning out, it feels, a film a year, if not two. This is on top of his plays, his television shows, and the running of his new state-of-the-art film and television studio in Georgia.
But please be clear that Tyler Perry is not the first African American to own his own film and tv compound. No, that distinction belongs to Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell Reid and what they built and opened in Virginia in the late 1990s. But Perry has taken the best of the hustle and flow of Micheaux, the bravado of Blaxploitation wonder-man Melvin Van Peebles, the make-Black-films-by-any-means-necessary mantra of Spike Lee, and the business savvy of the Reids, remixed the ingredients, and given us Tyler Perry, the baddest Black film mogul this side of the 21st century. And that begets a taste of power that makes Perry the Booker T. Washington of Black filmmakers. In other words, like how Booker T. was hotly debated in his day for his dealings with Black folks and issues of race, so too is Tyler P. hotly debated in his day for his dealings with Black folks and, yeah, issues of race (images).
But what one cannot deny about either is that in an America where it has always been extremely hard for Black folks to own and sustain institutions, both built institutions that stand as unbelievable achievements of the human spirit, and in spite of entrenched American racism and White privilege in the realms of education (Booker T.) and Hollywood (Tyler P.). One could even go so far as to say that outside of Oprah Winfrey, Perry is easily the most powerful Black entertainer in our nation, and one of the most influential regardless of race.
For Tyler Perry has taken the business of Black filmmaking to another level. A level that Micheaux, Van Peebles, and not even Spike Lee could have ever achieved. Because Tyler Perry is not only the master of his own ship, the owner of his vision and his brand, but he is now positioned to tackle Hollywood racism head on without ever uttering a single word about it. For sure, Perry says he does not discriminate against anyone, and that is clear from his diverse team of production folks. But it is also abundantly clear he has added brick after brick to the Spike Lee foundation of hiring Black people in every position possible, to nurture and train them for long careers in film and television production. The kind of opportunities they would not get elsewhere. I mean, when I look at the credits to, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s epics, “The Godfather I and II,” it is not lost on me the numerous Italian surnames. Coppola was clearly looking out for his people. So why can’t Perry do the same for his?
But with the box office success, the full-fledged studio, the role as the most powerful Black person in Hollywood, and an uncanny ability to get every kind of Black actress or actor you can think of into his films (no matter the quality of the films), I imagine the question began to gnaw at Tyler as the refrain scrutinizing his filmmaking skills, or lack thereof, have grown louder and louder: Where do I, Tyler Perry, go from here?
Here, I believe, means Tyler knows, there in the underbelly of his Southern soul, that he cannot continue to make, solely, Madea films, preachy PG movies with one-dimensional characters and a gumbo pot full of plotlines. That he had to leave his comfort zone, had to create 34th Street Films so that he can begin to make more meaningful films, better developed and multi-faceted films, films written and directed by others, and perhaps others with extensive film training, who can bring to life the kind of Black tales seldom told, and seldom seen in the history of American cinema—
Push play: for colored girls unfolds…
Living in New York City for the past 20 years as both a writer and activist means I have seen and heard versions of Shange’s choreopoem many many times. I even once lived with and dated an actress who, like many Black actresses, frequently used a monologue from “For Colored Girls…” in one audition or another. What I learned from my then-girlfriend, and from my Black female actress friends through the years, is that there is an enormous scarcity of monologues written specifically for Black women, that what Shange wrote really is as timeless as Shakespeare. And as poetic and lofty, too. That when you enter the world of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls…” you are, in essence, entering high and sacred ground.
Which brings me back to my decision to see the film on opening night. The evening before I had visited my mother in my hometown of Jersey City, and there we were, in the same kitchen she has been in for 30-plus years. As I ate the fish my moms prepared for me, she sat, all 67 years of her, slightly slumped, in a plastic-covered chair by the stove. My mother looked both at peace, and well, very tired. Tired from years of being a Black woman in America. Tired from years of working in cotton fields, factories, and in the homes of the wealthy and the elderly. Tired of being tired, these several years later, from talking about how my father had wronged her. To the point, now, that she herself had aged with hints of sorrow in her heart and twinges of bitterness at the corners of her mouth. She, a colored girl, who had survived the hostile abandonment of my father, and all the would-be suitors who came to move in, not to love her. She, a colored girl, who had survived acute poverty, minimal life skills, and an 8th grade education to raise me, a Black boy, to be something other than yet another wretched statistic. Who will sing the coarse songs of women like my mother? Who will tell their tales if not us?
And then to the other extreme of why I was in Jersey City Thursday night: Judge Shirley Tolentino, the first Black woman judge I’d ever met, had died, and I went to St. Aloysius Church on Westside Avenue to pay my respects at her wake. And what a wake it was. The church was loaded with all kinds of people, mostly Black, there to say good-bye to a Black woman many considered one of Jersey’s most powerful judges. I met her when I was a teen and driving my mother mad. I don’t even recall what the particular indiscretion was with the law, but there I was in front of Judge Tolentino, utterly stunned a Black woman, this Black woman, was about to decide my fate. For whatever reason, she gave me a break, I never went to a juvenile detention center, never landed in jail, so I had to see her one last time, even in that coffin box, just to say “Thank you.”
I had thought of Judge Tolentino often through the years, long before I knew of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, or Ida B. Wells or Mary McLeod Bethune, or Shirley Chisholm or Angela Davis, or the ladies in Shange’s “For Colored Girls…,” or Michelle Obama, even. For Judge Tolentino, like my mother, represents a kind of power that Black women have always possessed, from the golden earth of Africa to the concrete jungles of America’s inner cities, a power that said you may try to destroy us by all available means but like that Maya Angelou poem, still we rise—
And somewhere in Tyler Perry’s life, ostensibly, he has been affected, aided, raised, prepared, by Black women like the ones I know. All us Black boys know them. No, I have not always liked the way Perry has depicted Black women in his films, but I also cannot ignore how many Black actresses he has employed, quite a few of them so remarkably gifted by their God yet so completely shunned or forgotten by Hollywood. Nor can I disregard that in his newly minted studio are soundstages named after Black female acting giants like Ruby Dee and Cicely Tyson. Somewhere in Perry croons an undying love for Black women—
Yes, these things were on my mind as I made my way to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Perry’s film. I purposely sat in the back row so that I could watch any who entered. And here they came, slowly but surely, Black women like my mother, and Black women like Judge Tolentino. Younger Black women and older Black women. Straight Black women and lesbian or bisexual Black women. Black women with perms and weaves, and Black women with dreadlocks or baldheads. There were a few of us Black males present, and a few White sisters and brothers. I could feel some Black female eyes on me as I sat alone, wondering what had brought me to this film, maybe. I think if I had suffered through what countless Black women have suffered through in their lives, including my mother, I would question, too.
For what is it to live in a nation where you have been victimized not only because of your race, but also because of your sex? Where you have not only had to contend with sheer madness ranging from slave masters to corporate bosses with a reckless disregard for your being, but also from husbands, boyfriends, lovers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, sons, and grandsons whose own internalized racism and oppression have destroyed them and, in effect, destroyed you. This is the heaviness of experience and history that these Black women march with into one Tyler Perry movie after another. They simply want to see fragments of themselves on screen, be it Madea or Shange’s “For Colored Girls.” And most of these women are not like my actress friends, not like my cultural critics friends, not like my academic or scholarly friends, and not like my bohemian friends: well versed in all things Black, cultural, artistic, political, or literary. They are more like my mother, a woman who does not read books, save bits and pieces of the bible, and who has never really been told (nor mustered the strength to tell herself) that she is beautiful, that she is powerful, that she is visible.
Which is why since the 1970s when I was a child, as far back as I can remember, my mother mostly goes to the movies when it is Black people up on the screen. My moms is especially fond of Whoopie Goldberg and I suspect it is because Whoopie, like my mother, is a dark-complexioned Black woman who has been told, more times than not, that she is ugly, and you and I both know that Whoopie, and my mother, are quite beautiful. Therefore in seeing Whoopie shine on that screen my mother is seeing herself shine, is seeing her beautiful brown skin shine in a way it never shined in those cotton fields, in those factories, in the homes of those wealthy or elderly folks, and certainly never shined in the eyes of my long-gone father. Women like my mother, younger and older, simply need to know that their lives are valid, that their lives do matter. Love him or hate him, that is the space Tyler Perry has created for many a Black person, a space my mother asked me to share with her when she requested “Can you take me to see that movie about them colored girls?” Yes, ma, I will—
So there is this film, and as “For Colored Girls” began, I washed away the negative reviews I’d read, the questions on why him to do this, and simply watched the movie. I would say about 15 minutes into it I realized I was watching something very different than other Perry flicks, that he had grown as a filmmaker, that he was not butchering Shange’s words as so many had suggested he would, or had.
Instead what we were getting was a 21st century reading of “For Colored Girls,” very much required, in reality, given that Shange’s piece was created in the 1970s. And no different, undoubtedly, than Ethan Hawke taking Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and setting it at the Denmark Corporation in his early 2000s film version, while retaining the old language. If Hawke could keep the old language and update the setting, why can’t Perry? Moreover, it was clear to me, as the drama unfolded, that many in the theater, including the Black woman sitting right next to me, had never read the Shange book, nor had ever seen a staged production. Tyler Perry’s flick was it, was their introduction. And in this world of fast-paced videos, Twitter, and every manner of cell phone with video components, Perry has taken the best of what Shange has willed to us, combined it with a stellar ensemble that features Phylicia Rashad, Whoopie Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, and Loretta Devine, and created something that is, well, very special and quite magical, in spite of the hurt and pain peppered throughout this film.
The film had to be given a bona fide backdrop in Harlem, the men had to be given some voices here and there, and the women’s names could not merely be Lady in Red, Lady in Brown, and so on. We need to know them as Crystal and Yasmine and Jo. Need to know their names because those names are the real names of real Black women who live in Harlem, Brooklyn, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, D.C., St. Louis, Houston, wherever Black women be. But Perry had to cast his bucket somewhere, so Harlem became the metaphor for anywhere America, specifically one walk-up apartment building where most of the characters dwell.
Think of how Gloria Naylor put her main female characters on one block in her majestic novel “The Women of Brewster Place.” Or how a Brooklyn neighborhood exploded off the screen in Spike’s “Do The Right Thing.” With “For Colored Girls” I was awestruck by the color palettes used for the film, the exquisiteness of these Black women’s many skin hues, the imaginative method in which Perry stitched Shange’s original words in with freshly written lines to make the narrative go.
And go they do, for they are brilliant, hardworking, dedicated, steadfast, loving, divine, and, often, very very lonely in their own skins. You feel it with Phylicia Rashad’s character, the manager of the building, whose sole purpose at this moment seems to be as ears and eyes of what is happening with her neighbors. But it is in helping them through their pain that gives her life a pulse.
You feel it in Whoopie Goldberg’s character, so terrified of the universe that she has turned her apartment into a shrine of boxes filled with God only knows what, her life reduced to prays, pray oils, and an overwhelming belief that anyone who does not believe in her God and her religion is destined for hell, including her two daughters. You feel it in the innocence of Anika Noni Rose’s character, wide-eyed and recently out of a relationship, and so horrifically duped by a handsome man into a rape scene and subsequent monologue that was so jarring it felt like the entire theater had instantly become a mountainous chorus of tears, wails, and gasps for air.
And you feel it in Kimberly Elise, so broken by mental abuse and domestic violence that she is just one step from a complete nervous breakdown. And then her husband does it, he murders her two children in broad daylight, dropping them—and the sanity and heart of Elise’s character— from their apartment window, their blood smeared on the asphalt below like the jagged journey of Black women and girls in America.
“I never thought I’d see the day when I enjoyed a Tyler Perry film,” said one female friend, and I concurred with her. But I am not sure if “enjoy” is the right word. “For Colored Girls” is a conversation, a mirror, something, obviously, that one culturally and socially ignorant film critic after another just did not get as they blasted the film in their reviews. One repeated critique is that the movie deals too much in pathologies. Are you going to tell me that Coppola’s “Godfather I and II,” widely hailed as two of the best movies of all time, are not riddled with multiple social pathologies? Likewise with “Citizen Kane,” or “Forrest Gump,” even? So to these over-the-top haters of Perry’s “For Colored Girls,” What film, exactly, were you watching that that is the sum of what you viewed?
How does one come away from that film and not agree that Kimberly Elise should be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and Thandie Newton (with Anika Noni Rose and Whoopie Goldberg not far behind) for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar? How does one not acknowledge the terrific score, the captivating cinematography, or the set design, even? And how does one gripe that the back-alley abortion scene is not credible in these times if one has never been to, never lived in, nor ever spent significant time in an American ghetto and, as a consequence, is not fully aware of the physical and psychological lengths us poor Black folks have historically had to go to, even in the age of Obama and in an allegedly post-racial America, to duck and dodge the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?
Additionally, I do know if a Tom Hanks, a man who was on a mediocre television sitcom and made mediocre film after mediocre film in the 1980s, could reinvent himself as a leading man and Oscar winner in the 1990s, then why can’t Tyler Perry be given the space to evolve, to grow, to be something other than what first made his fame and fortune? Or if a Marvin Gaye could go from crooning catchy but clichéd Motown pop ballads to making a masterpiece model for social protest music with “What’s Going On?” then why can’t we believe, in our hearts, that Perry made a strong, compelling, and emotionally-riveting movie with “For Colored Girls?”
Yes, there are flaws in the film. Here are the glaring ones for me: Janet Jackson, who I have always loved in general, just should not be in the film nor should she have been given top billing. Janet simply does not have the range and depth she displayed as a child actor on “Good Times.”
Next, the director did not push Kerry Washington hard enough, I feel, to display the kind of emotional dexterity needed for her character as she witnessed the breaking down of lives about her, and her inability to have a baby. And it was so pathetically predictable that Janet’s husband in the film would turn out to be “a brother on the down-low.” We’ve got to stop fanning the flames of fear and homophobia to Black people like that, once and for all. The issue with HIV/AIDS in Black America is sexual dishonesty and sexual irresponsibility across the board, not whether someone is straight or gay. Everyone has to be more honest and everyone has to be more careful. That scene is one moment of a few in the film where I felt we were getting the old Tyler Perry, the Perry as Madea film where the script got stiff and, well, lethargic and unimaginative.
And, no, for the record, I as a Black man had no problem whatsoever with the depiction of Black males in the film. “For Colored Girls” is not a male-bashing film. It is a story about women and if you, a man, happen to be uncomfortable with what you see and hear, then maybe it is because elements of who you be are in some of those characters. I absolutely thought about my own relationships with Black women through the years as I digested “For Colored Girls,” thought of women I have dated, women I have treated correctly and as my equals, and of women I’ve treated poorly or disrespectfully. So if you are an honest man, one serious about your own growth and evolution, then you come to “For Colored Girls,” or any story about women and girls, with emotional courage and integrity, not disdain, finger-pointing, and haterism.
Unfortunately, this same wave of negative male responses occurred when Shange’s “For Colored Girls…” opened on Broadway in the 1970s, and with “The Color Purple,” the film, in the mid1980s. So it is to be expected given the patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny that runs rampant on our planet, still. Men will refuse to see the film and say it is unfair to them just because. But what is missing is that we males do need to listen to the stories of women, do need to empathize with their highs and their lows, do need to understand how much more we can learn about ourselves, if we simply develop the intellectual muscle to listen to the blues songs of women, including the women who are our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, nieces, cousins, lovers, bosses, employees, wives, friends—
But, alas, in an American society as drenched in sexism as it is in racism, that is a huge leap for many of us. Male privilege is a tough thing to shake, above all when we’ve been conditioned our entire lives to believe we are the superior sex, to believe that the only way to view the world is through our eyes. As if the women’s eyes don’t matter at all. The stories told in “For Colored Girls” are very factual, happen to women in Black, White, Latina, Asian, and Native American communities every single day; happen to women who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths, or no faiths whatsoever; and those stories, in particular the ones of rape and domestic violence, are the reasons why it was stated in a New York Times Magazine article in 2009 that global violence against women is the human rights issue of the 21st century.
What that means, matter of fact, for my community, the Black community, is that we’ve got some long-held and far-rooted traumas that we’ve got to deal with immediately. That was evident from the excessive laughter during scenes that were clearly not funny. Also evident by all the Black folks complaining about the audience chatter that took place during their viewing of the film. Or complaints of cell phones that went off. Mad annoying and each gripe valid, yes, but worthy of long Facebook posts and blistering denigration of each other that reeks of Black self-hatred and, in some cases, blatant classism by some of my more, uh, uppity and uptight Black sisters and brothers? No. But as long as we continue to suffer from what scholars and activists in Black America refer to as “post-traumatic slave syndrome,” passed from generation to generation, like a baton in a relay race, where your pain becomes your child’s pain, and so on and so forth, then we will continue to be divided, inwardly and outwardly. Was that not clear from the scarred and shredded relationship between the characters depicted by Whoopie Goldberg and Thandie Newton?
At the end of the day, people who are hurting simply want love, but often fail to recognize the first love must be of self. In sexing all those men in the film, Newton’s character was essentially ducking and dodging the inner her, and ducking and dodging the past she needed to confront, finally. That is why that coming together of community at the end of “For Colored Girls” is so critical, and so necessary. For none of us can go it alone. Yes, Black males have issues too and, and yes, we deserve films that present us as whole human beings, as well, but that is not the point of “For Colored Girls,” nor should it be; and, no, Black women are not abandoning us simply because of one film, but Perry’s “For Colored Girls” does suggest that if we are to be healthy, and whole, then it means we’ve got to make conscious decisions to come together in a way where I am not hurting you and you are not hurting me. And to love our powerful and beautiful selves before it is too late—
That is the challenge for Mr. Tyler Perry, as “For Colored Girls” continues to make money and continues to be both debated and disparaged. That is, can Tyler Perry—or will Tyler Perry—strive and struggle to transform the one-man economy his films have manifested, and use his voice, and his power, to push the envelope to make films, Black films, that not only show the vast complexities of the Black experience in America, and on this planet, but to also be spaces, simply by virtue of the genius of the work he produces and endorses for others, that can be healing circles for as many of us as possible?
Will Perry, the next time a woman’s story is presented to him, step aside and support a dynamic Black female director like Nzingha Stewart, Julie Dash, Ayoka Chenzira, or Kasi Lemmons? Will he, as a man, use his male privilege to make sure, in fact, that “For Colored Girls” the movie is not the last time, for decades and decades, we see such rich and layered depictions of Black women in theaters? Tall orders, yes, but I don’t think Perry has been given this grand opportunity just for the sake of making dollars. As Perry admitted himself in one interview, he tried to avoid doing “For Colored Girls,” both on Broadway and on film, but it kept coming back to him. Now it is done, it is out, and it is what he does from this moment forward that will determine his place in cinematic history and whether Tyler Perry’s body of work will ultimately be a legacy for the ages.
With thanks to New Black Man
Kevin Powell, New York City-based activist, writer, and public speaker, is the author or editor of 10 books, including the essay collection Open Letters to America and the poetry book No Sleep Till Brooklyn. Kevin’s writings have appeared in Esquire, Newsweek, Ebony, Essence, Rolling Stone, Vibe, huffingtonpost.com, and elsewhere through the years. Email him at email@example.com