Monday, November 8, 2010

Tyler Perry’s ‘For Colored Girls’: Not the Disaster Predicted

Like so many who love Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf, I was upset when I heard that Tyler Perry would direct an adaptation for the big screen.  I was more infuriated to discover that a screenplay by a black woman author had been pushed aside to accommodate his.  I went to the movie sure that I would hate it, but left surprised that so much of the original text had been preserved.  I was also (dare I say it?) impressed with the methods used for fleshing out the women’s stories in order to make the fairly long monologues of Shange’s choreopoem work well in the film’s scenes.  Perry’s For Colored Girls is far from perfection, but the criticism that his leadership sparked led him to seek extensive help from collaborators.  The result?  The film is not the disaster that so many just knew it would be. 

Having read Shange’s original and seen it staged, I wondered why it would seem appealing as a potential film.  The Broadway revival that fell prey to the most recent economic crisis made sense.  A movie?  Not so much.  In theatrical productions, the text’s focus on the women’s monologues is easily maintained; there is little need for props and changing scenery.  In film, the minimalism would have to be replaced, and men would be present in many scenes that would not have required them on stage.  Thus, I anticipated unnecessary distractions from the beauty and music of Shange’s poetic language.  Yet, the film succeeds by not trying to do the same kind of work achieved by the original text and stage productions of it. 

The movie does not keep intact the women’s individual stories.  Shange’s original represents the journeys of The Lady in Brown, The Lady in Yellow, The Lady in Purple, …Red, …Green, …Blue, and …Orange.  Though Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) and Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) do not represent women in the play, their words sometimes come directly from it.  Yet, Perry prepares viewers for the variation in that Gilda often wears black and Alice is always in white—colors that are not featured in the original.  Besides creating characters associated with colors not highlighted in Shange’s text, the film emphasizes color through props more than wardrobe.  For instance, Crystal (Kimberly Elise) rarely wears yellow, but she serves beverages in yellow mugs and her children’s stuffed animals are often yellow. 

Even those characters associated with Shange’s colors do not match the text.  Juanita (Loretta Divine) is always in green in the film, but she delivers a monologue that the play assigns to The Lady in Red.  Outside of her unreliable lover’s door, Juanita ends the relationship declaring that it has been an experiment to see “if i waz capable of debasin’ my self for the love of another.”  Similarly, Jo (Janet Jackson) is most often associated with red, but she is the one who insists, “one thing i dont need is any more apologies,” which The Lady in Blue says in the play.  Jackson’s rendition is extraordinarily constrained.  She has a very staid demeanor throughout the film, and this speech makes her emotional fatigue palpable.  Jackson’s soft-spoken but unwavering declarations wonderfully contrast the way that “the betrayed black woman” is typically represented in the nation’s popular imagination.

Interestingly, though film offers the flexibility to place characters is several settings, the scope of Shange’s vision is reigned in, not expanded.  The choreopoem begins with each of the women naming their locations: “outside of” Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Baltimore, San Francisco, Manhattan, St. Louis.  In the film, they are all in the New York metropolitan area and several live in or visit the same apartment building.  More strikingly, Shange’s diasporic vision is largely excised from the film.  The play’s incorporation of Latin music, and dance of all kinds, is all but missing from the movie.  Also, the film reduces the importance that Shange’s work places on Haiti and Toussaint L'Ouverture to a distraction for frightened children.  The story is creatively woven into the movie’s plot, but much detail is sacrificed, as is the dominant role that this story played for the female character in the original.

Perhaps the most lamentable missing element is one that could have been predicted.  Many of us feared that the original work’s black feminist orientation could not survive when placed in Perry’s hands.  I would certainly join the chorus of those who would suggest that there is little nuance in his work where black women are concerned.  In the play, one of the clearest moments of women supporting women emerges when The Ladies in Blue, Red, and Purple each take a part in pinpointing the assumptions that keep rapists safe and women vulnerable.  Together, they reject the myth that rapists are strangers, not friends.  Shange uses several women, not a lone voice, to assert that “the nature of rape has changed.”  Yet, in the film, it is largely in isolation that Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) bears witness to rape and struggles to survive its trauma.  The movie does not lose sight of the injustice of Yasmine’s experience, but its linear narrative is not conducive to preserving the communion that Shange made possible on stage.

As someone invested in the insurgent possibilities of black performance, I nevertheless remain convinced that whenever black performance appears in the mainstream, sacrifices are made.  The popularity of movies featuring black men in over-the-top drag indicates that Americans do not tire of stereotypes and denigration. (The previews preceding For Colored Girls included another Big Momma movie from Martin Lawrence.)  Big ticket entertainment that tells black people’s stories is far from plentiful, and the movies with the best chances for commercial success come in the “plum foolishness” variety.  As the late Marlon Riggs might say, the country’s “ethnic notions” continue to guarantee this trend.   

For this and so many other reasons, Tyler Perry has secured a position that allows him to be one of the few people who could have made this film the success that it is.  (It’s a must-see, even if you go expecting to hate it.)  Furthermore, because the nation continues to devalue black actors, especially black women actors, much of the talent that Perry assembles would not otherwise enjoy major roles.  A very American state of affairs.

I left the movie in awe—once again—of the actor’s craft.  Even though Shange’s original language requires performers to deliver relatively long speeches, her words are often uttered verbatim.  As a result, the actors gave me opportunity to re-consider lines that already meant so much.  As mentioned, Janet Jackson’s rendition of the “i got sorry greetin me at my front door” speech is refreshingly powerful.  Likewise, Loretta Divine’s “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” takes full advantage of the life created for her in the film as a woman’s group instructor in a community center.  Her delivery beautifully melds the humor and solemnity of that monologue.   

Similarly, Kimberly Elise’s “I found god in myself & I loved her” maximizes the fact that the film represents more of her journey than we see in the play.  Because the audience has witnessed her interactions with her husband as he struggled with mental illness and alcoholism, as well as her painful journey without him and her children, her shrieking delivery of “fiercely” at film’s end works.  (I have to add that the back-story that the film creates for Crystal's husband Beau makes untenable assertions that black men are being bashed.  As much as I agree with the concern that the movie may fuel “down-low hysteria,” the claim that it denies the existence of good black men demonstrates the lasting relevance of Ann duCille’s warning against “phallocentric” reading practices, which are preoccupied with how black men are figured and show little regard for how accurately black women’s lives are represented.)

Ultimately, having Perry at the helm did not create the disaster expected because he clearly consulted many people in this process.  And the film will surely help create interest in supporting the Broadway revival that so nearly came to fruition before.  Even better, it will get more of us to turn back to the original text.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that you love what Ntozake Shange accomplished in the mid-1970s even more than you remembered.  If I have Tyler Perry and the empire that he has built with Madea (a character that I could do without) to thank for that, I’ll have to accept it as yet another American contradiction that makes being black and a woman “a metaphysical dilemma/ i havent conquered yet.”