I'll give Tyler Perry credit. His films can surely generate the buzz needed to maintain his bankable status, and for a black man in Hollywood, that's a monumental feat. For that, and in recognition of the underused acting talent he's keeping off the unemployment line, I salute him. (I also imagine one grateful makeup technician, providing an endless supply of glycerin tears cascading slowly down the cheeks of Perry's nonstop parade of wounded women.)
As I trudged off to see "For Colored Girls," his talked-about adaptation of Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," it was more duty than anything else. Finally, I thought, I'll have an answer when the next black woman, and in a week there were many, asked, "Have you seen 'For Colored Girls' yet?"
Though the $20.1 million opening box office of "For Colored Girls" was lower than the openings for Perry's previous three films, according to The Wall Street Journal
, distributor Lionsgate was perfectly happy with the performance of a serious drama that did not put Perry in Medea's dress. With marketing help, it's hoped that the movie will eventually break past an initial audience that was 81 percent African American and female.
But those black women turned out. At the showing I attended, a young woman, back for a second viewing, brought along her mother. The woman admired it, with reservations; the mother loved everything about the film and its numbing collection of abused women and deceitful men. "It was as real as I'm standing here," she said, explaining that she had heard similar stories and worse in her regular trips to the beauty parlor. My colleague Helena Andrews
encountered similar mixed reviews.
Through reports from the field, I knew before the first frame that Perry's adaptation took liberties with Shange's choreopoem, mixing the poetry with literal-minded prose. He added characters, including a hard-driving career woman, played by Janet Jackson and dressed in dominatrix-like black leather when we first see her reducing subordinates to the quivers with a cold-hearted rant. (Must caring about your work and other people be mutually exclusive, Mr. P?)
We are definitely in Tyler Perry territory, the land of little nuance, where you can imagine him taking his actors aside and instructing them to "give me more drama" before the next take. Though Thandie Newton's promiscuous banshee is over-the-top scary, nothing can stop Loretta Devine from working her particular magic. There were some affecting moments, yet I was glad the sun was shining when I left the theater after a very long two hours and change. Rather than earning a moment of joy, at movie's end the women of "For Colored Girls" held onto each other for dear life.
The black men -- besides being beautiful to look at – were, with one exception, a pretty horrid bunch. That fact has garnered its own stream of criticism, as the reviews – judged both too harsh and too forgiving -- have become part of the Perry narrative.
It's just one filmmaker and his vision, and "For Colored Girls" is only a movie. It's not a documentary about the plight of black women in America. But it carries much more weight than it should. When there are so few portrayals of African Americans on film and TV, one movie means too much to so many, and that's a shame.
In the context of American history – when stereotyped cultural symbols have been used to justify shameful acts – images of victimized black women and brutish black men are not hard to find. Add to that Shange's work, a touchstone of black feminism and sisterhood, adapted by a successful and controversial artist, and there was bound to be a stir.
Yet, to criticize "For Colored Girls" is not to deny the reality of women who find it comforting. Finding fault with Perry's approach is not disrespecting his enthusiastic audience, despite his defenders' occasional effort to equate the two. And loving a movie does not mean you think that black men and women are one thing or the other.
In America, blacks have had to constantly proclaim their very humanity, their mix of strengths and vulnerabilities. It's no wonder we are sensitive to how others see us and how we see ourselves, particularly when projected on a movie screen.
Perhaps one day, a movie will be seen as less a political act than an artistic choice, to be judged on its own merits, without the cultural baggage dragged through hundreds of years, and portrayals of African Americans will be as complicated and interesting as we really are. Maybe there will be more big-screen choices for women and men so talented and lovely that they light up the cover of Essence magazine
Until then, despite my less than glowing response to his latest melodrama, you have to hand it to Tyler Perry. I bought a ticket.