Tyler Perry Finger Paints Over "For Colored Girls" (Spoilers and Video)
What I saw in the theater the day "For Colored Girls" opened were women who had come not for love of the Broadway play on which the film was based -- poet and playwright Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf" -- but for love of Tyler Perry, the man who had given them Madea. Perry's version of Shange's play is not the best movie I've ever seen, but neither is it the worst. It is not the most moving, nor did it leave me cold.
On Friday, the day the movie For Colored Girls opened in theaters, I went to see it. I drove from the Seventh Ward in New Orleans, La., the same ward in which Tyler Perry grew up, I'm told, across Lake Pontchartrain to the Grand Theater in Slidell. I thought it would be less crowded than a theater in the metropolitan area, but I was wrong. My daughter and I arrived 20 minutes before the movie started, and we were still shoved into an overflow screening, which also was packed by the time the previews began.
Black women were everywhere, leaving wafts of perfume in their wake, dressed to the nines in silky blouses, leather pants and stilettos, toting designer handbags or sauntering to their seats in casual tops, blue jeans, and flats. A few brought babies. Even fewer brought men. Most flocked in with friends who designated one in their group to schlep back to the concession stand for food such as nachos and then another back because the first couldn't find the peppers.
I suspected many of them knew nothing of the Broadway play on which the film was based, poet and playwright Ntozake Shange's choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The play won the Obie for distinguished production and cast in 1976 and snagged a Best Featured Actress Tony that same year for Trazana Beverley. But there I was watching For Colored Girls with the Perry faithful, fans who never miss any of his films if they can help it.
Kimberly Elise in For Colored Girls. Image courtesy LionsGate
Having seen the original play in the 1970s when everybody was talking about it and also being familiar with Perry controversies, I could easily write four pieces about this film adaptation of Shange's work. I could offer one as a critique of the movie, the next as an examination of reaction from black women who love the play and call it "our play"; a third about people who hate the movie because it has Tyler Perry's name on it, especially black men who are already complaining that the movie is "another attack" on them; and a fourth analyzing the original play, looking at how it was received in the 1970s, and why it still resonates with women, both white and of color, today. But I can only write one post for now and tell you that Perry's version of Shange's play is not the best movie I've ever seen, but neither is it the worst. It is not the most moving, nor did it leave me cold.
Some critics have said the movie has "Oscar all over it." That may be true, but I suspect the Oscar will be for one of the actresses and not the movie itself nor for the director, who also wrote the screenplay. As you will read in numerous reviews, For Colored Girls features an all-star ensemble cast of black actresses: Anika Noni Rose (Yasmine//Lady in Yellow), Kerry Washington (Kelly/Lady in Blue), Janet Jackson (Jo//Lady in Red), Kimberly Elise (Crystal/Lady in Brown), Loretta Devine (Juanita//Lady in Green), Tessa Thompson (Nyla/Lady in Purple), Thandie Newton (Tangie/Lady in Orange), Whoopi Goldberg (Alice/Lady in White), Phylicia Rashad (Gilda), Macy Gray (Rose).
Kimberly Elise and Michael Ealy in For Colored Girls. Image courtesy LionsGate
Elise's performance touched me the most, but even when I saw the play it was that character's story that haunted me -- a woman who lives with an abusive, unstable man, a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who can't find a job and who eventually drops her children from a high rise window. If you're unfamiliar with the original play, then be forewarned that Perry has not removed the violence. Indeed, he's put it in on the screen and in your face with his decision to show not only the scene in which Beau Willie (actor Michael Ealy) kills his and Crystal's children, but also the rape scene -- images the original only provides through poetry. In addition, there's a back alley abortion scene that made me cringe. It was the clanking of the poorly sterilized medical implements in the red bucket with vodka while Rose (played by Gray) recited Shange's poem "I Useta Live in the World" to young Nyla on the table that had me digging my fingernails into the arms of my seat.
i useta live in the world
then i moved to HARLEM
& my universe is now six blocks
my oceans were life
what waters i have here sit stagnant
circlin ol men's bodies
shit & broken lil whiskey bottles
left to make me bleed
BlogHer Contributing Editor Prof. Kim Pearson told me she's still processing this movie. Writing on Facebook, she said:
I have now seen the film. It did not engage or move me in the way that the play did 30 years ago, partially because I am not the same person, but also because this is a very different production. If you see it, go with others with whom you can discuss it. If you have PTSD as a consequence of rape or violent crime, you ...might want to consult your therapist or support system before and after viewing. As I reflect on it, I have to say that I was most impressed by Kimberly Elise's performance. Thandie Newton also plays a woman who is very different from anyone I've ever seen her play. I was told that Phylicia Rashad plays the part as if she was Claire Huxtable, but I saw her stage pedigree shining through. Macy Gray was surprisingly effective in her brief role. I was most displeased with the way Janet Jackson's part was written. Her storyline was flat and cliched. It reminded me of the problem I had with Vanessa Williams' character in Soul Food. Why is it that a mature professional black woman is often depicted as cold and castrating?
Janet Jackson in For Colored Girls. Image courtesy LionsGate
Her assessment is very similar to mine. I felt that Jackson as the Lady in Red who was also Crystal's boss represents not Shange's vision, but a Perry type seen in some of his other productions. She is the upper class black woman who can't find a good man or identify with her people, hence her flatness and her humiliation by Perry's pen. She contracts the HIV virus from her husband, Carl, who is "on the down low."
Nevertheless, I give Perry points for attempting to update Shange's play with a horror the African-American community faces today, the AIDS crisis, and I can see that he may have been trying to make the point that AIDS can potentially afflict anyone regardless of class, but is he saying that disease unites us? It's his return to his "class war" theme and his tendency to make judgments about upper class black women in his productions that goes against the message of Shange's play.
Shange's characters in the original text do not judge each other the way Juanita judges Jo (Jackson's character) in Perry's film. The poet does not emphasize walls between women but commonality. Part of Shange's ethos, as the playwright tells China at Madame Noire, is that she wants to see women "have more respect for women they don't know because you don't know what's going on in the memory of a woman you see walking down the street." I felt Juanita's speech to Jo delivered at Jo's magazine offices reflect Perry's hang-up with "uppity" black women. We see Juanita suggest in anger that Jo has "no color," a judgment that splits her from the women. A special condemnation seems heaped on Jo that is not tossed on other characters.
Jo transforms later after witnessing the murder of Crystal's children, and realizing that she didn't know her assistant was being abused and that she, through her husband, is HIV positive. That story is very Perryesque, the big finger-pointing at an actual event that lays the upper class woman low so she may arrive at her epiphany. However, as Prof. Kim implies, Perry is not the only male who's projected negative judgments of successful black women in film.
How does Shange feel? Harriet Cole at The Root interviewed Shange before the release of For Colored Girls. Shange, who suffered a series of strokes in 2004, told Cole that when she first got the news that Perry wanted to talk to her, she wondered "what the hell" did he want, and learning that he wanted to take her play to the big screen, she armed herself with lawyers. The poet says in the video interview that she is "not a fan of slapstick," and was adamant that Madea, Perry's alter ego, should not appear anywhere in the film.
She was assured of Madea's absence; however, Madea appears in For Colored Girls in spirit, argues Mako Fitts at Ms:
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 can see that. Her assessment echoes the criticism I have about Jackson's character. Shange's lack of judgment on black women is flipped to reflect Perry's/Madea's judgment. Fitts continues her critique with more astute analysis of how Perry's vision differs from Shange's and ties some of her insight to Perry's recent revelations on Oprah about surviving sexual abuse from a man in the neighborhood and an older woman. Those revelations are in addition to his earlier acknowledgement of being brutally beaten by his father as a child. Fitts also discusses additional judgments of women's sexuality that surface in Perry's film that are not present in Shange's work.
As I watched the movie, I felt Shange's narrative slipping away. The movie became something that stands in many ways separate from the poet's work. Perry changed the order of the poems in an attempt to connect them to his updated vision, giving the poetry of one colored lady from Shange's play to another colored lady in his movie, and that didn't always work for me. Whenever possible he incorporated verses from Shange's choreopoem, but the swafts of poetic language seemed out of place more than once, even creepy at times instead of beautiful, such as when Gilda recites parts of the poem "One" near Tangie's face in an effort, it seems, to make the promiscious woman straighten up.
Kerry Washington, Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni Rose in For Colored Girls. Image courtesy LionsGate
When Tyler Perry introduced his cast at the film's premiere, he told the audience that people had suggested for years that he take on Shange's classic. Finally he accepted this advice as a message from the universe, it seems. I, however, think Mr. Perry was also hearing the voice of his critics in his head. I think he seeks approval from what an Essence Magazine writer calls the "literary types," and it's his desire to be taken seriously as an artist that prompted his decision to take on For Colored Girls.
Perhaps reacting to critics who fault him for presenting what some, such as Spike Lee, call formulaic "coonery" or swipes from others who call him a "one note" writer and director, Perry seems to try hard to make For Colored Girls have an artistic feel. As immature artists sometimes try to imitate what they perceive to be masterful strokes while having no more under their belts than finishing three-color finger paintings or as new writers who seek to please a literary crowd may go overboard on mystical allusion and big words, Perry sometimes goes overboard trying to color the movie with westernized concepts of superior culture.
The opera/rape scene best illustrates Perry's attempt to tip his hat to stuffy critics. As explained in part at UrbanBridgez, this scene features a beautiful Italian aria that Perry's "longtime composer" Aaron Zigman wrote for the film. It's entitled La Donna in Viola, which is the Lady in Purple. The aria translates into Italian and music Shange's poem "Pyramid."
This grandiose and disturbing segment mingles images of Yasmine/Lady in Yellow's character being sodomized by her date rapist with images of Jo/Lady in Red with her husband Carl attending an opera in which three black women stand in the shape of a pyramid while they sing. Seated in the balcony with his wife, Carl casts longing gazes at a man on the lower level of theater.
An entire row of women laughed loudly through this scene and others giggled in discomfort throughout the theater while a few people turned and glared at them. At first I thought they were laughing at the rape scene, and then I realized they were laughing at the opera and Carl's lust for a man while his wife appears ignorant. I also think these women thought the opera was silly. I believe Perry chose to stitch these scenes together and have "Pyramid" sung in Italian in an attempt to "be classy." He hopes, I suspect, that educated audiences will see that the poem "Pyramid" speaks of betrayal, and both Jo and Yasmine faced betrayal -- Jo over time and Yasmine immediately. But it was all too much.
Then later Kelly, who is married to the one "good black man," Donald (Hill Harper), recites part of "Pryamid" again to her husband to explain how she came to get an STD that's left her infertile. In Shange's play, these three women were betrayed by one man who played them against each other. Though hurt, they eventually realize what they jeopardized their love of each other in their adoration of him. They then share their pain and comfort each other. In Perry's film, the woman turns to her husband for comfort. That's Perry's story, his ethos, his song for the weary black woman: "Some day he'll come along, the man I love" remixed with "Someone to watch over me."
Thandie Newton and Whoopi Goldberg in For Colored Girls. Image courtesy LionsGate
This replacement of sisters with husband abandons Shange's feminist appeal to women to see how women have found God in themselves and "loved her fiercely." These words are given lip service later, however, at the end, the big hug scene.
Speaking of the good man in the movie, Donald, perhaps Perry, in an effort to create a mass market consumable, created this one positive black male character. There is no such character in the original play, but as mentioned earlier and surely Perry will learn, even this compromise of Shange's feminist message of black women turning to each other for solace and learning that they have the backbone and compassion to comfort each other did not save the director from black male wrath.
Courtland Milloy, writing at the Washington Post, rails bitterly against Perry, but reading Milloy's words I sensed not only anger at Perry but also the fetid breath of misogyny:
Me, I thought the movie should have been renamed: "For Black Men Who Have Considered Homicide After Watching Another Perry Movie." ... "Oscar buzz, breaking news," read the Hollywood Reporter on Friday. "Will 'For Colored Girls' blindside Tyler Perry's critics?" ... Too late. I was blindsided while watching the movie, especially when superstar Janet Jackson appeared onscreen looking like Michael Jackson with breast implants.
Black male angst aside, this movie is generally getting mixed reviews of which 42 percent are positive, according to MovieIntelligence.com, such as this gusher at the Los Angeles Times. The balance of reviews are either reluctant reprieves to Perry or lashings like this one at the Village Voice, "The Rainbow Disconnection: Tyler Perry Mangles For Colored Girls."
At RandomRhyme, blogger Jara writes "For Colored Girls Is For People Who Have Never Considered Murdering Tyler Perry." However, after sharing strong reservations, she still says "it’s easy to see that everyone involved in the making of this film participated with love." Her approach is like that of bestselling author Terry McMillan who twittered, "Although everybody has been dogging FOR COLORED GIRLS, & I had problems with it, I still think it's worth seeing."
Shange's seen the movie since her interview with The Root, and she says she spotted few flaws in Perry's adaptation. About those who say Perry "cheapened" her work, she comments in an interview with The Grio:
I haven't seen those people in 20 years. I don't know who those people are, they don't know me. I don't know who those people are. It cheapened, darling my work used to be for free. I used to do these poems by myself with a drummer or a tamboura player, or with a piano player, any kind of music player I could get. We would do it outside on a corner, and we would make art in the street, and people would throw things at us like coins. One time I had a group I was with called The Mushara Brothers and they gave me a tambourine, and I used to hop around with a tambourine to get our change for the night. One night we made $2.57 that's all we made, and we had to divide it between the three of us.
And in the video below, Shange expresses gratitude to Perry for choosing to bring her work to the big screen.
For lagniappe, here's Alfre Woodard performing "Somebody almost walked off with my stuff" in a 1982 DVD performance directed by Oz Scott, the same man who directed the Broadway Play. This poem is performed by Loretta Devine in Perry's movie as the Lady in Green. It is also the same poem referenced in a 2009 blog post at What Would Thembi Do in which she laments that Perry may be walking off with all of "our" stuff by taking on For Colored Girls. In her recent review of the film Thembi says Perry performed a "gentle butchering" on Shange's work.
Finally, here are some scenes from the premiere. Maybe it's Hill Harper's natural wisdom or maybe he internalized the understanding of his character, but his comments in the video could explain to some black men why For Colored Girls should not be dismissed as male bashing, why black women's painful experiences with men are stories not told in film as much as people think they are.
I have talked this movie over with an older woman who is a loyal Perry fan. She did not like it, calling it "too sad." She said it made her cry and that it was not what she expected. And while in the movie, I heard one of the few men there say to his female companion, "I don't like this show." His comment came on the heels of Beau Willie dropping the children from the window at which point some women in the audience screamed. Nevertheless, I urge anyone who believes she can watch this film and let it speak for itself, or anyone who, as one blogger says, is not "wedded" to Shange's original work, to go see For Colored Girls and process Perry's picture. Let me know what you think.