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For Colored Girls: A Messy, Miserable Melodrama

Thembi Ford 4 November 2010 22 Comments

Did Tyler Perry, the man I consider “the King of Coonery,” 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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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.” 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, Phylicia Rashad, 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. 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?

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

by Thembi Ford

22 Comments »

  • Ju said:

    Thank you. Great review. Seems as though it should’ve been written & directed by a Black woman, after all, notably, Nzingha Stewart.

  • madamezzz said:

    Thanks for this review. I’ve never seen the play, though I’d like to. It saddens me a bit, really, the TylerPerry-ization of this play. Was Julie Dash not available?

  • don said:

    Awesome read.

    I was fortunate enough to attend a screening for the film last week and, although it was entertaining, I honestly didn’t “get it.” When I voiced my opinions to those around me, I was promised that if I read the book it would make sense. Since I haven’t purchased the book, I felt it was in my best interest to revisit this subject later.

    But your sentiments pretty much mirror mines, and very well-written, I might add.

  • SweetT said:

    wow. i literally grew up reading this choreopoem and have seen it on-stage. i was devastated when i heard tyler perry got his hands on it… i must admit, i’m not remotely surprised. great review.

    “Perry’s version of a black girl song is more funeral march than praise dance.”

    *sighs* not sure i will be able to sit through this.

  • Debt Hater said:

    Thank you for this read. I was excited to see the film and now… well, I still plan to see it, but maybe with dampened expectations (which may well turn out to be a good thing anyway). I was worried about how he could possibly make this poem into a film, Tylerized, and now I see how — the no-good negroes are trotted out again. I will bash anyone who does wrong, but I am sick of the man bashing Tyler is so good for. He needs to appreciate his audience more and recognize that most black women DO NOT hate black men and most black women are, as you said, “plain old happy … to be Colored Girls in the first place.”

  • Shix said:

    What movie did you go to see, not the same one that I did last night. You watched the movie through the filter of your TP hate, so no matter what he did, you were not going to like it. It is extremely sad that you would put finger to keyboard to convey this sentiment.

    At what point did you see any of those women exclaiming that they hated men? In their actions or in their deeds? I saw women who were doing exactly what so many of the women that I encounter in my day to day life collectively do.

    Keep in mind that the author is doing just as much publicity for this movie as Perry or any of the actors are, she was happy with the adaptation of her work. Perhaps instead of making it a point to tear down a man who has done his all in order to be successful in his career and provide some of THE only jobs for Black actors/ actresses, we should make some sort of effort not to condemn his every action.

  • ill Mami said:

    According to Shix, we should be grateful that Tyler Perry has been able to “provide some of THE only jobs for Black actors/ actresses.”

    I’m sorry but just because the end result is shit with sparkles and sugar on it doesn’t mean I’m going to eat it.

  • professorjawn said:

    thanks for this thembi – you’re exactly right. and shix, you said that ntozake “was happy with the adaptation of her work” – what is your evidence for this? she elides any specific questions, delivers pat answers about perry, and is diplomatic about the content at best. like the movie if you want, but don’t recruit her to your tyler love fest.

  • milaxx said:

    This was what I was afraid of happening. It was the little things, dropping the full title of book from the movie version, the ‘colors’ that the women wear in the promos. I just got the feeling that enough slight changes would be made that we would lose the feel of the original.

  • Her said:

    This film was meant to be done by the person who fought to get it made and that would be Nzingha Stewart. But good ole’ Hollywood greed got in the way and Tyler stood back while she was edged out f her own project. Not cool on any level. He’s not capable of handling this material, period! What’s crazier, is he never heard of the play before directing it…ever! Shix, it’s not about not being supportive, we are all proud of what he has overcome and made of himself. This film had one shot and his take does not do the work justice… take it from a colored girl!

  • Me said:

    Thanks for the excellent review. I’ll watch this one when it’s $1 on Redbox. Another insult is putting a non-actress as the focus of the film. There were some great actresses, who are truly actors, who could have been given that honor. Shame on you Tyler!

  • Alaia said:

    I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read the choreopoem yet, but I’m planning to before I see the film.

    This has been interesting for me. The trailer had me hooked – but largely that was due to their use of “Four Women.” I’m skeptical of anything Tyler Perry does and honestly can’t consider myself a fan unless liking “Precious” counts. I share your feelings about him, Thembi.

    This film has a stellar cast, so I’ve considered giving it a shot. I didn’t realize Perry wrote it though – I was more inclined to see it because I thought he just directed it. I thought “oh good, this one just might be for me!” I guess I’m back on the fence.

  • [flahy][blak][chik] said:

    Because of ppl like Shix, is why Tyler Perry has been delusioned into thinking he’s a great writer/director/drag queen.

  • Sheila said:

    Very interesting, thought-provoking review. I sounds right on target. I read the play as a teenager and was very moved by it. I had my doubts as to whether Tyler Perry had the gravitas and acting/directing chops to handle this work with the sensitivity, intelligence and humor it deserves and your review confirmed my fears. I may still see this film (probably on video or cable), but I won’t rush to shell out $10 to do it. I applaud him for trying to bring a classic to the screen and steppin’ out of the “Medea” box he seems to have locked himself into, but this play is sort of “sacred cow” to many of us women of color and even with the most talented of male directors/producers, it would have been near impossible to do it justice. It doesn’t make someone a TP hater to dislike it or have a critical review. That’s the wonderful thing about having an informed opinion. You’re not only entitled to it, but it’s based on your personal preferences and your relationship with the subject matter. For me, the truly tragic thing is that so many young women of color had never heard of it before Tyler Perry made it into a film. Why are we not properly teaching the classics in our schools AND our homes? And maybe the truly glorious, positive result will be that many women, whether of color or not, will seek out the original and judge for themselves.

    p.s. You misspelled Ms. Shange’s first name. It’s Ntozake.

  • Thembi Ford (author) said:

    Thanks Sheila! The red squiggly spell check line made me miss that one!

  • E said:

    Excellent review! Just saw it.

  • StacyAustralia said:

    I actually thought it was a pretty good movie. No, I thought it was an EXCELLENT movie to be exact. Yes, I read the chorepoem as a teen. I read so many negative views about the movie that I had to force myself to go in with an open mind. No, I am not a TP stan, but some of the things I hear bloggers say about him are horrible. It seems everything he does is WRONG!! If this man sneeze people are headed to their computer or smart phone writing a post about how he sneezes like Antoine Dodson or something. I’m sadden how so many people have jumped on the bandwagon without seeing the movie. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but I just would like for people to see the movie before making a judgement. If you do not like it then, that’s cool but at least see it before declaring your dislike and jumping on the bandwagon.

  • Marylove said:

    I am in agreement with Stacy from Austrailia. I’m not a huge Tyler Perry fan but a 47 yr old Colored girl, and I thought this was his finest work. He finaly went deep,debth I hadn’t seen any of his previous films have. If you haven’t seen the movie, please do, then come back and voice your own opinion. This reviewer has her own opinion which I respect, but simply taking her view of the film as accurate without seeing it is a mistake. I’m sure the actresses in this film would appreciate your support, because they did an excellent, out standing job and should receive a standing ovation.
    I acted in this play in college, and love it from beginning to end so much that I knew the lines of most of the monologues when recited in this movie. So I’m just as protective of this piece as the rest of you, but I disagree with the reviewer. I really think we should try to stop calling Mr. Perry a coon. That is just as bad as the N word to me.
    In my day the word coon only came out of the mouths of racist white folks when adressing blacks. Aren’t we more intelligent than that?
    Mary from Oklahoma

  • Thembi Ford (author) said:

    @Marylove

    Just to be clear and so that you’re not confused, I did not nor have I ever referred to Tyler Perry as a coon. The type of humor he tends to engage in amplifies the disgusting and disturbing coon stereotype which is, as you mentioned, a concept based on white racism. It is an aspect of his past work that I find damaging and that is why I referred to him as the king of coonery. I have very few personal feelings about Mr. Perry as a person and certainly have not expressed any here.

  • Marylove said:

    Thembi, sorry for the misinterpretation of your title for Mr. Perry. This is my first time here. As I stated before, I do respect your opinion on his work. I have never heard the word ‘coonery’ used before. Pardon my assumption and misunderstanding. Have a good day.

  • Thembi Ford (author) said:

    @Marylove

    The reason you’ve never seen that word might be because I made it up…at least I believe that I did! Your opinion on the topic is appreciated!

  • Marylove said:

    One thing I do hope will come of this is a new crop of young ladies of color who want to find out what the original work is about. That would be wonderful.

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