Touré and Dr. Boyce Watkins engage in a lively discussion about Tyler Perry and his effect on the black community. He was the top male money maker in entertainment according to Forbes. $130 million between May 2010 and May 2011! Is his success a “win” or is it really holding us back? Produced by yours truly! Please share your thoughts!
I’m so excited that I’ve finally watched For Colored Girls AND read the 1975 book by Ntozake Shange. I’m excited because I was WAITING for the opportunity to refute the MANY anti-Tyler Perry movie reviews that have surfaced. Call me confrontational. Below is a review I found at http://www.neontommy.com/news/2010/11/colored-girls-messy-miserable-melodrama that I feel is pretty representative of most opinions about the choreopoem-turned-movie. I’ve included by comments in bold alongside the comments of the original author, Thembi Ford.
—SPOILER ALERT—Don’t read this if you haven’t already seen the movie guys!
For Colored Girls: A Messy, Miserable Melodrama
Did Tyler Perry, the man I consider “the King ofCoonery,” completely destroy the play that so many black girls carried dog-eared copies of in our high school and college backpacks? Not really, and there isn’t a drop of coonery in “For Colored Girls.” I completely agree. Definitely not an ignorant or ratchet movie.
What Tyler Perry did do in writing and directing his own version of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 classic “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf” is best described as a gentle butchering: he leaves the skeleton intact but replaces the heart of the original with a heavy dose of “no good black man” melodrama and some film-making gymnastics. Make a note of this paragraph…
Shange’s original choreopoem features an intentionally stripped down aesthetic and a cast of seven women each represented by a different color.
Through poetry and dance, the classic play voices the challenges and joys of black womanhood by addressing issues such as race, rape, abortion, falling in love, and learning to accept yourself, brown skin and all. Do not these issues relate to men? Rape occurs when a woman is attacked by a man. Abortions occur after women have sex with men. Women fall in love with men (typically). And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that women’s issues relating to self-acceptance and skin tones also relate to interactions with men. Think of how many men frequently rate womens’ attractiveness according to how light or dark she is. The poems in this book are presented with little context. Tyler Perry—or any director’s—charge when turning this into a movie was to assemble these poems into a narrative that a movie audience can follow. Stage plays have less of a responsibility to do that. It’s easy in a stage play to have a narrator fill the audience in on details. In fact in the latest versions of Shange’s book, the stage directions and narration scripts are published. Most movies are made without narration. It is entirely the job of the dialogue, the sets, and the actors to let the audience know what’s going on. Therefore the need to have a simpler, more direct storyline is essential—particularly in this case where 7 relatively disparate characters must all be woven together.
Perry’s interpretation replaces the anonymous women with a cast of characters whose experiences are occasionally expressed through Shange’s poetry but are primarily presented via a heavy-handed storyline that makes “For Colored Girls” more of a two-hour long soap opera than a work of art.
Most of the events come straight from Shange’s work, but Perry updates the story with a male supporting cast, some moralizing about HIV and religion, and of course, a brother on “the down-low.” Yes, fans of the original, you officially have permission to roll your eyes. That sounds like a diverse array of issues to me. And let’s not forget that Tyler Perry wrote in the character played by Hill Harper in order to give a positive black male figure.
The film begins with one of my favorite poems, “sing a black girl’s song/bring her out/to know yourself/to know you/but sing her rhythms/carin/struggle/hard times/sing her song of life…”
Before long I realized which notes this film erases from our song: the blissful ones. There is no Toussaint. There is no hopscotch. The joys of a first sexual experience as told by Shange’s poem “graduation nite,” are reduced to a first act aside. Toussaint is told by Phylicia Rashad while she’s holding the two children in her lap. The “graduation nite” is most certainly not a first act aside! Nearly the entire poem was kept in tact and I definitely remember it as a major point in the movie. And when Lady in Purple was speaking it was full of bliss and happiness. This comment by Ford is just WAY off!
Perry’s version of a black girl song is more funeral march than praise dance. Instead of a well-rounded and inclusive interpretation of Shange’s work, Perry deftly manages to suck out most of the joy and hope that made the original so vibrant and true. His is a hat trick that almost impresses as much as it insults. After reading Shange’s original work I am hard pressed to believe that it was SO full of all this joy and hope. The graduation nite poem was joyful in the book and is joyful in the movie. Additionally, all of the poems by Lady in Yellow that detailed her love on dance and music were joyfully retold her in the movie. She smiles in a restaurant and while walking down the street 3 different times joyously relaying Shange’s poetry. Other than those…which poems were the joyful ones? “Abortion cyle #1”? “No More Love Poems”? There were 4 of those. What about ‘sorry’ or ‘no assistance’ or ‘i used to live in the world’ or ‘latent rapists’’ or ‘pyramid’ or ‘somebody almost walked off wid all my stuff’? I would argue that ‘somebody almost walked off wid all my stuff’ is more joyful in the movie than the play! Lady in Green laughs and smiles as she speaks to a group of women about a man leaving her again. I believe that Ford in her review is vastly overstating the positivity and joy of Shange’s original work.
As expected, Shange’s eloquent poems about love, loss, and self-reliance are the best part of “For Colored Girls,” but their integration into the storyline is jarring and even silly at times. Imagine your standard musical but insert poetry instead of songs and there you have Perry’s solution for turning the choreopoem into a dramatic film. I believe that it terms of the script, the poems were well integrated. The movie script wasn’t vastly different from the language and tone of the poems.
Theater adapted to film is always a tall order, but it’s hard to take a monologue seriously when an actress abruptly adjusts her countenance and, with a quivering lip, delivers a monologue in out-of-place language over a dramatic instrumental that ramps up for the poem’s duration and then abruptly disappears to make way for everyday scripted dialogue. A handful of these are well done, but it’s too easy to groan when a character suddenly catches the “Shange Holy Ghost.” I will agree with this. Although the script flowed well, sometimes it was as though the character when from indifferent to emotional and back to indifferent again in terms of feeling when delivering the poem.
This patchwork approach does a disservice to Shange’s words, which are still magical and remarkably descriptive today, even at over thirty years old. Perhaps, with some adjustment, Perry has created a new art form, but probably not.
Fortunately, the cast makes “For Colored Girls” watchable even when the film-making is bumpy. Kimberly Elise, PhyliciaRashad, and Anika Noni Rose all put forth excellent performances and every single woman in the cast acts her behind off – even problematically so in the case of Janet Jackson, who caricaturizes the cold career-woman in a way that made me wonder what ever did happen to Penny after she got over her mother’s abuse and moved out of the projects. How can you say that the actresses deliver amazing performances yet say that the characters were not believeable/were too heavy handed?
In spite of the gratuitous tear-jerking story line (promotional tissue packets were even handed out at the screening I attended), “For Colored Girls” is easily the best Tyler Perry film I’ve watched, with strong attention to visuals and some powerful scenes.
But how did a play about black female identity and empowerment turn into a movie about how hard it is to rise above all of the nonsense that men put us through? Why are these 2 ideas mutually exclusive? It seems to me that Ford just restates the same thing here. Black females can gain stronger identities and greater empowerment BY rising above mens’ nonsense!
“For Colored Girls” leaves black women battered and communing with God and each other exclusively after we’ve travelled the rough road that some scoundrel brother has laid out for us. I believe every woman in this film emerged victorious, not battered. Totally wrong.Lady in Brown learns to accept responsibility for the fate of her children and survives a suicide attempt, Lady in Red leaves her selfish husband and learns—through Lady in Green—that she can still live a full life despite HIV. Lady in Green gets the courage to leave behind a man who was dragging her down, while at the same time uplifting women through her non profit organization. Lady in Orange leaves behind her promiscuous ways, Lady in Purple lives through a dangerous abortion and goes on to college, Lady in Yellow gets to see her rapist get his just dessert and maintains her love of music, and Lady in Blue becomes stronger after witnessing all of the victories.
Meanwhile, the original passages illustrating the beautiful bits of black-girl-ness are omitted, humorized, or broken apart and scattered into barely recognizable pieces throughout the film. Why is this necessarily a bad thing? Again, we cannot forget that a movie cannot be a DIRECT adaptation of a book or play. Some things that are too long must be shorted, things are too serious must have a dose of humor, and things that are repetitive can be left out. None of the omission, humor, or scattering changed the feeling of the original poems. Of those included, the final poem “laying on of hands,” is too little, too late, and too cinematically similar to the final scenes of “Waiting To Exhale” to work well in “For Colored Girls.”
Not only does Perry’s tendency to deal in miserable stereotypes take charge in the adaptation, the women of “For Colored Girls” are an even worse lot, each of them victims of their own poor decision-making in the pursuit of male love. Again, as I stated earlier, problems with falling in love, or rape, or abortion—must be related to men!
His reputation for black male bashing through stereotypes will likely take the blame for the cavalcade of one-dimensional no-good Negroes in the film – abuser, rapist, cheater, liar, murderer – but most of these characters also existed in the original without ever appearing on-stage. Conveniently leaving out Hill Harper’s redeeming character.
The difference between the two is that Shange’s women were propped up by joy, while Perry’s are driven by their need to escape sorrow. Perry largely glosses over the persistent issues of race, sisterhood, and how plain old happy we are to be Colored Girls in the first place. Glosses over sisterhood? The last scene is defined by sisterly love, and throughout the movie, each of the Ladies helps each other in a sisterly way, despite whether or not they already knew each other.
That happiness, not the evil that men do, is what made “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf” a groundbreaking collection of poetry and the voice of black female identity for generations of women.
In that sense, the film accomplishes the very opposite of what admirers of the original work find so powerful. Thanks to Perry’s interpretation, we are again being told – this time in a twisted version of our own words – what defines us.
I believe is Ford is being really melodramatic here. Whether the issue is caused by men, or parents, or friends, or coworkers…the issues exist nonetheless. Tyler Perry chooses an easily identifiable topic—man problems—as a vehicle to explain and weave together the stories told through Shange’s poems. What matters is that Perry maintains the integrity of each story, and that each woman emerges victorious.