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For Colored Girls: A Messy, Miserable Melodrama

Thembi Ford 4 November 2010 43 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

43 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.

  • Thembi Ford (author) said:

    @Marylove

    Absolutely! In fact I heard that the book has been bumped to the top of the New York Times best-seller list thanks to the publicity surrounding the film. There are many more positives beyond that that can come from this project, in spite of its specific drawbacks.

  • arieswym said:

    “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”

    That sentence is the best summary of my feelings about the movie. I’ve got nothing else to add to your excellent review.

  • Rod said:

    To author, I do believe that if you call someone a king of something, then you’re calling them that very noun that comes after the word king. So in this case, you are calling Perry a king of coonery, which translates into him being a coon. Just admit it, and accept your opinion, many will agree with you, including me! But many people don’t know that being a coon was actually a survival technique for slaves, however, all things evolve including how we survive. For Colored Girls might just be some way that Perry is surviving. Maybe his distortion of the original work is his way of remaining as Lions Gate’s Golden Child, who knows. However, my question is… Where are the FEMALE producers and directors? You can’t really blame the man too much for attempting to add vitality to a long dead book. How many black women would be able to identify the book as random passerbys on the street? Let alone, the author? Only educated women know anything about this work of art, and Tyler may have grown weary of waiting for someone female to draw out it’s real meaning… This coming from a male perspective. Much respect to you and the ladies on this site.

  • MrsTDJ said:

    Thank you so much for this post. You’ve put words to everything that I was feeling when my girlfriends and I left the theatre yesterday. Excellent review and summary!

  • Thembi Ford (author) said:

    @Rod
    Believe it or not, I don’t believe hardly anyone is really a coon. Tyler Perry is a businessman, performer, maybe even an artist, but I only seek to understand and evaluate the type of black comedy that he finds genuine and true. Most of it plays on acting outside of oneself for cheap, degrading culture-related laughs, which is what I see as coonery.

  • Terry said:

    I’ve seen the play. I’ve read the choreopoem. I just saw the film and loved it. If you don’t like someone…for whatever reason you tend not to like what they do. The proof will be in the numbers not what any individual critic has to say. Why is it when you tell a story, a story that women live EVERYDAY…it’s male bashing. If its true…then it is what it is. Although I respect the authors opinion, I think her personal opinions scream loudly through this review.

  • MissMaryMack said:

    Thembi, the more I read your work and the more I’m assured that intelligent thought is not dead. Then I read the comments and see that stupidity and lack of reading comprehension still live.

    Terry, at what point did the author say that this movie had a problem of male bashing? That phrase is not even in the piece! What she said was, and rather well and clearly, was that the experience of the women in the film was viewed as solely as the result of their experiences with men. She never said those experiences were not true to life AND said that the play she loves included those experiences. What she DID say was that the black woman’s life is more than just our lives with men. The film did not show that and THAT is the problem she has with it. She also said that she has no personal problem with Tyler Perry.

    If you want to disagree with a writer’s opinion that’s one thing, but at least understand what they wrote before doing so.

  • Jayar Moten said:

    That review made my satirical approach just feel rightfully puny. I LOVE this. You were able to capture the essence of Shange’s message and why Tyler was so incapable of communicating the beautiful struggle that is Black Womanhood.

    I mean, this was moving. It makes me suspicious of women who loved the films adaptation THAT MUCH MORE.

  • Monica said:

    Since I saw this movie, I have been trying to put my finger on why I didn’t “love” it or have any desire to see it again….and you perfectly pin-pointed why; Perry took all the joy out of it. I remember reading the poem in high school a few times, in college a couple times and again before seeing the film last week and I distinctively remember smiling at moments. I sat through the movie with a clinched jaw and frowned brow at scene after scene of pain, degradation and heartache. The beauty in the pain of For Colored Girls was the “fight” in them. How they lived through their trials and kept living beyond them is what made it a testimony to why “colored girls” are so great. Perry murdered that. Thanks for this post!

  • Dr. Goddess said:

    Whew, I’m finally through! Thank you so much, Thembi, for your excellent analysis of the film. I just left the theater LOVING the film but that’s also because: a. I had lowered expectations and b. I chose to focus upon the actual usage of Ntozake’s words. My review is coming up so I won’t add to many spoilers here (a girl’s gotta live!) but I will say I think you definitely made the case for why, ULTIMATELY, Tyler Perry should have produced and Nzingha Stewart should have written the play, perhaps even with a Julie Dash or Kasi Lemmons directing. I think Tyler Perry did a very good job. I just know that these women would have made it superb, sublime, divine.

    There were moments of joy that were expressed, in doing “Graduation”, Thandie’s celebration of her own sexuality and, certainly, Loretta Divine. Still, I get your point about the continuing thread throughout and how it could have been done differently.

    Yes, Ma’am!

    Also, reading the comments made reading your review even *more* enjoyable, so kudos to you for the analysis and the discussion you inspired. Ultimately, this is why I’m so happy the film was done at all!

  • Jameil said:

    This is the review I was waiting for– reasoned and honest. I wanted somebody to tell me this would be what I expected. I really don’t want to hear the unapologetic “this was WONDERFUL”ers. LOL. Yes, I know that’s closed-minded, no, I don’t really care. My favorite? The promotional tissue packets! Stop!! I’ve been tricked into the theater w/his films at least thrice by cries of the plot has less holes and it’s his best yet! Fool me once… you know the rest.

  • MIDNIGHTGODDESS said:

    The original play with Lynn Whitfield is on DVD.Yes, in all of it 70′s glory. I am going to go see it because it is a black film with actors of color.Wishing that some of the other directors of color will give us movies that shows us. I like TP and will continue to support his movies. I don’t go see everything that is out there but I am surprised by those who aren’t going to see it just because of this or that. And we wonder why we don’t have more movies made for us. Many of us have stories to tell, write them down and send them to someone who can flush out real stories of a personal struggles. We can’t arise until we have arrived. Thank you, Thembi, for your point of view. Love your blog and wish you continued success.

  • simplychic said:

    i thought the movie was pretty good, but the acting was phenomenal! those women did their thing.

  • pjazzypar said:

    Hi Thembi,

    I agree with your review wholeheartedly. The acting was remarkable for the most part, but the film was filled with clichés and I left the theatre disappointed. Why is Macy Gray always the same character in every film she appears?

  • missalecia said:

    Wow! Very interesting review. I am a 39-year old Colored girl and as a few of the comments stated, I’d never even heard of this classic poem “For Colored Girls” or the author. That’s disturbing. But be that as it may, I did see the film and felt it was pretty deep, definitely a tear jerker with emotional (and even depressing) content. I’m not so much concerned with TP. I can take him or leave him. I’m not a huge fan, nor am I a hater. He does what he does and that’s good for him. The one thing I did gain from this movie is the knowledge of the original which I can now go and get to judge for myself. Most books are better than the movie, just judging from past experiences. So thanks to the author for the review. I agree with some of your opinions but as stated, I have nothing to compare it to…..yet. Also, great comments, people!! so much passion. I love it. xo

  • Reginald Dorsey said:

    This and Precious together make Harlem seem so bleak. They rival The Pianist’s Warsaw, quite honestly.

    So, when I first saw it, I didn’t think it was that bad on black men.

    Then I let it simmer. And I got kind of angry.

    But now, I think I get it.

    Yes, the movie is devoid of any joy.

    Clearly, this is what Perry wanted it to be. I don’t think he did this by accident – it was done on purpose.

    I think he was pandering to his perception of what black women want to see from a film about black women and men and love and conflict.

    I get why there was no balance – men don’t look to these movies to see their struggles showcased, dealt with and focused on. That’s what Hip-Hop has been for for the last 25 years.

    This movie, and others like itm is the black woman’s version (in the commodity-sense, not in terms of real truth) of the old misogynistic gangsta rap record from the 90′s, or a raunchy BET Uncut video from a few years ago.

    Identical.

  • Sandy said:

    I saw the film tonight and it was horrifying. The worst film I’ve ever seen in a theater. It was a joke to the point that we were laughing during parts that were supposed to be serious. It was all so poorly written, haphazardly directed and absurdly wrought. I think your review was kind to be perfectly honest. I can understand why some people might be able to stomach that trash but let’s call a spade a spade even if that spade is family. He’s a shitty filmmaker and outside of this one looking like a real movie it was a disaster. Why would anyone want to be a colored girl after seeing this morbid, heavy-handed piece of shit? He truly took a masterwork and mangled it and for that he deserves criticism. I have NOTHING against Tyler Perry. I want him to do better. But this time he failed. Phenomenally and audaciously. If you liked the film and sincerely thought it was “great,” well… There are plenty of our people that still enjoy and take pride in eating pig entrails as well, so what are you gonna do?

  • KhayWrites said:

    Great review and fair assesment of the film. I thought the movie was decent. The strength comes from the performances of the women.In regards to the down low/HIV plot line, in the new intro to the choreopoem, Shange says that she made the change (in addition to having Beau Willie be an Iraq vet) because she felt “it would be irresponsible not to address the pandemic” so she added the section “Positive”. But I wonder how much (if at all) the changes were influenced at all by Perry’s screenwriting.

  • invisiblewoman said:

    dang, thembs….we said almost the exact same things, tho you were more eloquent (as usual).

    “shange holy ghost” wish i hadda thought of that one! lol

  • Annette said:

    I am new to this blog, but I appreciate the author’s candor about this movie. I saw the orginal play when I was 12 years old in Chicago, and I was spellbound by the women and their stories. Something made me stay far away from this movie, as if I already knew that it would not be handled properly. I think Tyler and Oprah must have sat around talking about how great it would be to make this classic; the problem is, this play was a very emotional piece of theater that had to handled very carefully in order to understood by the masses. Some just would not get it. Even as a 12 year old I realised that. I ended up reading the book many times over my life and with every reading, I learn something different about myself. If this movie is Tyler Perry’s best up to this point, great. I think I will wait for Nexflix.

  • ShonQuayShah said:

    i did not see the play – i was young when it was out in l.a. and my mother was too busy getting her “buppie” on at the time to take me or herself. but i did watch the pbs teleplay and i liked the movie much better. the things that happen in the film DO happen in real life and i took a positive note from it all. no matter what happens, when life knocks you down, get back up. period. point blank. it’s entertainment pure and simple.

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