Let me begin this review of Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls with a personal statement: I have 15 people (relatives, close friends, writers) in my inner circle with strong thoughts about Tyler Perry. Six of them swear by him, nine of them hate his guts. Though I stand firmly in the latter camp, I understand and respect the reasons why the people in the former take him to heart. Some will tell you that, though condescending in his message, Perry is the only major black male pop artist to deal with the issue of violence against black women; that he is the only person in Hollywood to create art that addresses issues central to their day to day reality; and that he brings first rate actresses into his movies to do so. Others will tell you that, in a choice between the genteel nastiness of post black art and the viciousness of the hip hop generation, Perry’s message of Christian salvation is a balm. A couple, in defense of the film, say that Perry, for all the axe work he did to Ntosake Shange’s poetry, at least brought her to the limelight for a new generation of fans.
Those explanations, of Perry and Colored girls, are founded by experiences and the weight of their history. I have little space to refute them except to say this: none of them come close to someone showing them true empathy, basic humanity or any feeling that resembles actual love. This distance, between the imaginative sublime of Shange’s chore poem and the dark, sub literate world of Perry’s imagination, is the marker of For Colored Girls’s failure, and the reason many believe it to be one of the great aesthetic atrocities in the history of African American Art. 2 hours and 12 minutes long, it is a bad ally horror show, Perry feeding his dark victim-savior fantasies while stomping on the work of an Artist never interested in being saved ( Shange) to do so. Many have stated the difficulty in translating such an avant guarde work as the play to a movie screen; but Perry’s cuts are so crass, so reductive, so cruel and deforming, that even the most sympathetic of his critics have been aghast by his demons and his lack of a cognitive imagination.
To understand what he did in For Colored Girls, and why it’s raised the blood pressure of so many people, one must look to the source material. Though very much in the experimental ethos of American theater in the mid 70’s, For Colored Girls Who Think Of Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf has more of a kinship with The Choral Plays of Yeats and Delmore Schwartz, works stewed in folklore that use poetry to brilliantly manipulate space, time and point of view. In contrast to the story structure of conventional theater; Shange presents a story of seven Bildungsroman’s and seamlessly interweaves them throughout the play. Contrary to the emotionalist critics of the play; the mood of Shange’s For Colored Girls is not political anger but interior heartbreak over the broken promises and ideals of the civil rights generation, and the play draws power in how each of them deal with that wreckage to try to exists in a more human world of their own. Premiering in 1974, the play endures because it translates it’s imagery to spatial and narrative dimensions better than almost every major poem-play I have read. Bringing the avant guarde uptown and forcing the Dadaist experimental street theater of black nationalism to grow up; Shange’s For Colored Girlsis a landmark not just in African American literature, but American Literature en toto.
On the screen, Perry’s For Colored Girls plays like a train wreck on impact: you may have seen it coming, yet you don’t really get the full impact until it’s busts you upside the head. And Lord, what a wreckage it is. In place of the modernist, nonlinear poetry and plot, Perry gives his trademark, by the numbers, kitchen sink realism. Instead of the seven ladies in seven colors, we get seven women in close proximity who deal with each other in various levels of rancor. Most importantly, in place of the folkloric odyssey each women takes away from, then to each other, we get a litany of women who live in the dark regions of Perry’s imagination: The rigid church lady, church girl gone wanton, the mean loose woman, and the doting abused wife who Perry deigns a fool for staying.
Perhaps the most vicious blows came in the characters of Jo, of which he centers the drama around. A mean, cruel, executive in the Devil Wears Prada mode, she is Perry’s favorite character archetype, the professional black woman who rises above her station, who is all mean things to all good people, who in the end has her misery and comeuppance when her boyfriend cheats on her with other men. Jo is Perry’s “white whale”, his great character obsession; and to see his rage played with every incantation-his creating and laying her low over and over again-is a fearful sight to behold. In his For Colored Girls, her neglect toward Crystal ( who he transforms into a naïve assistant) is seen as a contributing reason for the calamitous fate of her children in the play.
It is the ending of Perry’ For Colored Girls, where, like the ending of all his plays, he shakes off his synthetic feminist bromides and lets his dark, christianist message come forth. Here his contrast to with the original work becomes stark to the point of maddening. Shange didn’t include the gothic, tragic final scene, Boy Willie’s throwing the two children out of a window, to shock the audience; she wrote it to flip the idea of violence in the hero’s narrative like a hotcake. For centuries, violence in the bildungsroman had been seen as a rite of passage, a stage in a man’s journey, written with no intimate relation to how people actually deal with violence or the people that violence had been dealt to. In Shange’s hands, the concept is thrown back, and through the remixed sorrow song of the ending( the rhetoric that black people historically used when dealing with violence) the seven women all but add to Beckett’s existential statement ” I can’t go on, I’ll go on” with an emphatic ” We have to, because we have been through too much.”
Tyler’s answer to them in the play reads more like ” That’s what you troubled broads get and that’s what you troubled broads got into”. Beau Willie’s act of murder is seen as the humbling point for each of the characters where they see the errors of their ways, and embrace the pseudo Christian viewpoint of mega church black America. For if he grants his black women happiness, he grants of them only if they bend to a man’s will; only if they suppress their individual identity, stay in their “traditional ” spaces; and bear the burden of the race on their back; and if they don’t rape, violence, misery, and murder will befall them. This is Tyler Perry’s obsessive theme, the crux of his argument in For Colored Girls, and the reason why so many people hate him so deeply.
It must be said, however, that many people don’t, and many people are eager to give Perry credit for not being Lil Wayne or Ishmael Reed. Part of it lies in history, and how what black men have inflicted on black women has run crosscurrent with what has been inflicted on them, and what they have inflicted on themselves. The great male heroes in my aforementioned circle of friends and relatives (Poets: Mckay, Cullen, Madhbuti, Knight. Novelists: Baldwin, Gaines, Jones. Playwright: August Wilson) have been complex, complicated, vulnerable figures who wrote about that theme extensively; and recognized the complexity of Black women in the process. Though imperfect in some ways( who isnt?), they have acknowledge the humanity of the women that have read them, and retain a sizable black female audience for doing so.
In Perry’s For Colored Girls, however, the only thing you see is darkness; something that has less to do with art than the dime store sociology that dictates so much discussion about ” what’s wrong with black women” today. Costuming himself in an American classic, Perry once again rages at American black women and calls it Christian love. Like his drones,( TD Jakes) and his non-fiction compadres( Steve Harvey and the sociopathic Jimi Izrael) He is raging at a woman who isn’t there, yet endures because she lives in a world beyond logic and reason. She is not someone that people can combat with facts, because the men who believe in her dont believe in logic and facts. They believe in power, domination, victory in the eternal battle of the sexes that constitutes so much of our discussion on gender. Heaven have mercy on all of us if they win.