Saturday, November 06, 2010

Thoughts About For Colored Girls

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*Disclaimer* this is not a review of the film. These are my thoughts about the film and Tyler Perry's involvement.

For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuff is an Obie award winning choreopoem by Ntozake Shange about black female identity. First performed in Coffee houses over 35 years ago, it is hailed as a landmark of American feminist theater. The play is a collection of 20 poems delivered by seven nameless women represented by the colors of the rainbow (yellow, blue, orange, red, purple, brown and green.) The production was 78 minutes of emotional purging presented on a bare stage, with choreographed monologues addressing issues like love, abandonment, rape, abortion, domestic violence and motherhood, all from a feminist and African-American perspective. The defining poetry and sparseness in staging made the presentation of the soliloquies powerful. The end of the play brought all women together for a “laying on of hands” which evoked the power of womanhood.

When the news broke that Tyler Perry was adapting Ntozake Shange’s transcendent work to the big screen as writer and director, I and others shouted a collective WTF? I immediately thought that TP’s approach to filmmaking was too simplistic and underwhelming and his adaptation would not match Shange’s emotional dexterity. Also, he has never resisted the temptation to characterize his female leads as victims in his films, (Some of his films send the message that all women need is the church and a good man and all their problems will disappear.) How dare he attempt to turn a groundbreaking and radical work into one of his suffocating melodramas? This is surely his bid for cinematic respectability but why couldn’t he ruin somebody else’s work? I was afraid that Perry’s minimalistic and micro waved approach to script writing and script analysis would take the heart out of Shange’s lucid and fluid language.

Guess what? A brother was wrong.

For Colored Girls is good, really good. Perry’s adaptation stands on its own because I could feel that he cared about the original play so much that he made certain to represent it properly on screen and he added some additional characters, altering some elements that separate the film from its original text. I won’t get into the changed elements to heavy as not to spoil some of the new twists and nuances that weren’t in the original play, but added nicely to the existing text. One added character is Gilda, (played by the incomparable Phylicia Rashad) the wise and matriarchal building manager who adds a much needed cohesion to hold the story together in film format.

The cast was stellar and gave a pulse to Shange’s illuminated musings. Loretta Devine is humorously gullible. Anika Noni Rose is tragically courageous. Kimberly Elise is fantastically heartbreaking. Thandie Newton is blissfully afflicted. Macy Gray is wonderfully spooky and Phylicia Rashad is a revelation. Janet Jackson (much better than in previous films), Kerry Washington (cute but meh’) and Whoopi Goldberg (to over the top) were just okay.

The actors, Michael Ealy ( convincingly conflicted) Hill Harper (typically solid) and Khalil Kain (unexpectedly menacing) all played their roles well but were there to compliment the women’s performances.

Some men will be offended by the harsh portrayal of males in the film and accuse Perry of male bashing once again. But if men objectively examine the pathology of the characters in the film they represent brothers that you may know either in your neighborhood or even in your family, all the males with the exception of the rapist had real true to life issues that face black men on a daily basis.

The central theme of the movie was about black women confronting the truth and being allowed to feel anger, sadness, sorrow and grief without being looked at as pathetic, as bitches and as victims but just human. I think a lot of the negative reviews the film has received come from people’s prejudice of Tyler Perry, if that’s not the case, I really can’t call it, because I didn’t see a bad movie, I saw a movie about black women "finding God in themselves and loving themselves fiercely" thru the pain, disappointments and tragedies. That’s what I saw.

I am an analytical guy, so I approached the viewing of this film like it was Tyler Perry’s feature film debut. I didn’t want to judge him based on his previous works; I wanted to judge this film on its own merits. That approach worked because I laughed, felt mournful, was appalled, felt exhausted, was captivated and felt the rawness of human emotion in a two hour time frame. There was some melodrama and it wasn’t perfect, but what movie is perfect? (Either you like it or you don’t), it shouldn’t be judged based on who the director is. With this film, Perry proved that his cinematic vision is expanding and he is capable of producing respectable work.

Side note: Even if you didn’t like the film consider this: Tyler Perry should get props for having the resources to bring Shange’s seminal work to the screen, and more than likely, it wouldn’t have been made if he didn’t do it. I hope this is a new direction that he is going in, because I look forward to seeing other beloved black books and plays coming to the big screen like “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “Dark by Kenji Jasper”, Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”, “Top Dog/Underdog” by Suzan Lori-Parks and August Wilson’s “Fences”. Tyler Perry's great work with For Colored Girls shows that with a love and reverence of the source material black art can be produced beautifully on screen.

24 comments:

  1. Very enlightening, Jason.

    I've already heard & read so much negativity about this film & T.P's vision. It's definitely gonna piss some folks off. But then again: controversy, thy name is Black Art!

    I have to give credit to the fact that SOMEONE stepped up and took on the near-impossible task of bringing this seminal play to the big screen. For this alone, Mr. Perry deserves props.

    Miss Shange's choreopoem lived, breathed, made tears & history upon the stage, and so to bring its fullness, richness, & yes tragedy to the film medium requires the talent and the grace of pulling Shange's words and characters out of the rarified ether that is poetry, and then to flesh them out into cinematic Afro Blue angels.

    No work of art will ever tell the story of a people, of a collective of women or men in a way that speaks to everyone's Core Truth. If that is indeed possible to do, then that work has yet to be created.

    But attention should be paid when someone, in all earnestness, TRIES.

    For Colored Girls attempts to imbue one woman's vision and to allow it to become a reflection to the world at large.

    Will it succeed? In some ways, it already has because it's (finally) been made & with Sista Shange's blessing.

    Will it please everyone? No. Not hardly. Will it move others, most definitely.

    I appreciated your eloquent thoughts on this film, Brotha Pen.

    I plan to see it tomorrow.


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  2. Thank you for this! You outlined the movie perfectly without giving any of it away which I appreciate since I still haven't seen it yet but I plan on going to the movies this coming Tuesday! And reading this only made me even more excited to see it :)

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  3. Yes, thank you for giving me something to think about, because I most definitely was not going to see the film. I stopped watching TP movies a long, long time ago.

    Thank you, Jason, for your open-minded synopsis.

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  4. What a great write-up on the film Jason. I haven't seen the film yet, and it's funny a good friend of mine asked me if i will see it...my response was, when it comes to dvd. I am an emotional person and sitting in a theatre watching a movie based on a play/choreopoem that i have not only lived, but performed in will evoke emotions that are not fit for a theatre setting. Sure, everybody cries, but i remember being "the Lady in Orange" in this particular play and it's funny how everything i was experiencing with my male friends, past, present and future came out during that performance. I was rocked, shooken and stirred. (this should be a blog post)...and in the end i was changed...i found God in Me! Thanks for this write up, so glad to know it is worth the wait!

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  5. *disclaimer about spelling errors, I didn't use my spell checker*

    I pretty much disagree. Tyler Perry films are always ridiculously sterotypical. They either show black people acting a fool or black women who are hurt and abused. Why can't he make movies about black lawyers, superheros and scientists? I almost feel like TP sets us back a good 200 years as I have not seen ONE of his films that does not play into the "typical black" movie role.

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  6. I'm not a huge Tyler Perry fan and have not seen all of his films. Some were ok and the others, I passed on. However, this one, I'm certainly going to take in. After reading this post, I am certainly intrigued.

    Peace and blessings
    FSB

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  7. I am going to give you credit for seeing a TP film with an open mind. That can't be easy to do. I'm very cynical when it comes to Perry's films. But your review has dropped my level of cynicism by a few degrees.

    In general, as you know, I'm inclined to agree with Alee.

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  8. @Lin
    I am impressed that he even thought to adapt this play that means so much to so many people to the big screen. The only thing that beats a failure is a try. I give props when props are due!

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  9. @Miz
    I feel you. I've seen the play twice and I own the book. I was concerned when I when I found out that TP was at the helm of this important project.

    Considering he has such brilliant and transcendent source material to work from, I think he did a decent job.

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  10. @Alee
    Hey Alee, thanks for dropping by!

    If you aren't familiar with the original play or you haven't seen the movie I am not sure what exactly you disagree with about my post.

    I've never been a fan of TP's previous work either. That is why I was shocked at good an effort this was.


    Also, I read that he created this division of his film company to develop more serious projects and to give young and up & coming writers and directors an opportunity to bring thier vision to the screen. So maybe you'll be seeing those movies about Lawyers,super heroes and scientist really soon.

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  11. @AFSB
    Thanks for stopping by!

    I hear you. I think people are judging TP based on his previous films and rightfully so!

    His approach to film making is simplistic and entertaining not comlexity and enligtenment. His bad rap is well deserved.

    It seems that people are refusing to accept that this film was created based on something that already existed that is considered a classic in theater, it is not an original Tyler Perry creation, it's and adaptation.

    He has some many detractors that they are turning a blind eye to that. "If this was when Madea considered suicide because the lord wasn't enough." I would be bashing him like everyone else.

    This his attempt at branching out and showing people that his cinematic vision has expanded and he is capable of doing more than we expect from him.

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  12. @Val
    I know how you feel about TP Val. LOL! This is something different from TP.

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  13. You know...you brought something to my attention;
    Tyler Perry does seem to have movies that show a black woman as a victim who ends up with a man and redidicating her life to God. I appreciate your delivery on that fact...I received it better than Ive received other peoples criticism.

    very touching movie. I absolutely loved it. Sadly I didnt know who Ntozake Shange was :-( I am soooo happy to know who she is now!

    OK, LOL @ 'A Brother Was Wrong'
    That made me laugh...I enjoyed reading your view and perspective. He did an amazing job :-)

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  14. oTAY, Brotha Pen,

    You wanted my take, so hereitgo
    (in the shorter version):

    For me, "For Color Girls" would have been more believable had it remained in the decade in which it was first written. The 70s. There were specific elements w/in the play & book that rang true b/c of the timeframe in which the work took place. T.P.s vision moves the story into the present, then asks the audience to suspend beleif during some very crucial moments, thus, doing a disservice to the text/spine of Ntozake's Shange's work. Somehow backstreet abortions seem not only archaic, but dubious in the present-day.

    Although a writer, actor, & director, T.P. to my knowledge, is not a poet. Whenever his words took over for the words of Miss Shange my ear could detcect this distinct difference. So what should've appeared seamless instead became obvious.

    IMHO, Shange, with her words, composes emotional symphonies. Perry pens pop songs.

    I understand a director taking his own artistic liberties, BUT whatever happened to 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it?'


    According to actress Thandie Newton, in the first draft, her charcter didn’t even exist. T.P.'s script went thru 3 re-writes, b/c he was using key elements from the play to create these more modern women. He gave them names and situations and relationships and so on, and so that changed quite a lot.

    Where this fails for me is T.P.'s insistance upon adding several men, each one (w/ the exception of Hill Harper's cop) flawed, foul, fradulent, felonious, & fucked up in the extreme. He also added a DL element (to the Janet Jackson charater's storyline) which only brought more finger-pointing, more demonizng & more drama in a work that already had more than it its fill. It becomes a tiresome exercise in futility when Hollywood continues its history of painting black men as stereotypical demons, unworthy of love, of giving love or of being loved. One would expect better from a director who also happened to be black and male. This felt like an unnecessary & brutal slap in the face.

    To its credit, the film does have some fine, stunning, even Oscar-worthy moments (along with some Razzy worthy ones). At it's best, it's human drama of untold depth & stylized language. At it's worst, it's a star-studded soap/over-the-top kitchen sink melodrama.

    However, the ensemble cast was very effective. Each of the actresses came to play, & each suited up appropriately. This is probably the best performance, thus far, in Janet Jackson's career. Here, she becomes an actress, not a pop star thrust into a movie role simply due to name-value.

    *HUGE TWO PARAGRAPH SELF-EDIT HERE*

    Special kudos go out to Kimberly Elise (who always displays, in equal parts, quiet nobility & heartbreaking sensitivity in each role she portrays) & most especially, Anika Noni Rose, who brought layers of depth & qualities of humanity she'd never been given a chance to display until this role. Hers was my favorite perfromance.

    For all its flaws, & falling short moments, it is a film worth seeing. For all its angst & anachronisms, the viewer is launched into a world of terror & testimony, heartbreak & histrionics, poetry & pathology one will not easily forget.

    If you're a purist who knows the original work, & who appreciates it on the merits of its fine writing, the singular music of Shange's voice, the theatrical structure & enduring social message, you may be somewhat put-off by Perry's version.

    That being said, it IS a large step forward in comparison to anything else he's directed previously.


    I would suggest those who are still curious to go see it for themselves & let their own hearts be the judge.



    That's it. That's all.

    (& YES... believe it or not, this WAS the short version!)



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  15. @Lin
    Thought provoking as usual brotha pen.

    I feel you. But I think some of the themes that are examined in the film are tired re-hashes but they are still prevalent in the black community.

    The film was adapted from a play so he had to create a different world in order for it to be suitable for the screen.

    Initially, I scoffed at the back alley abortion scene but if you remember Thandie Newton's character (her sister in the film) went to the same abortionist and I think was an attempt at cohesion.

    I feel you about the addition of the down low storyline but I've read so many blogs directed at sisters that are outraged by the whole down low phenomenon. Which made me realize that is an issue that hetrosexual women are concerned about.

    I agree. the jump for Perry's simplistic dialogue to Shange's soaring language was glaring but I don't know how else he could've done it.

    I'm happy that he kept most of the poetry intact!

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  16. @Sj
    I enjoyed it as well. The characters depicted in his films exist, there are lots of different black people in the world. We are not a monolith. I keep reading about the his minstrely and stereotypical images. I bet some those same people have Lil Wayne and Gucci mane albums in their CD changes.

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  17. Great read.

    I definitely agree that FCG was more poignant than anything Tyler Perry has done and, as you stated, it shed light upon Shange's original piece.

    I had heard much ado concerning the origina, though I never took the time to read. So Perry inspired me to purchase the book and gain the understanding that I somewhat lacked while watching the film.

    Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Whoopi Goldberg - I cannot say enough about their acting performances.

    Hopefully after I read Shange's piece I will understand the film in its entireity.

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  18. Hey Jason...

    Thanks for the review. I guess I spend a bit too much time on my Facebook because I have yet to hear a bad review. People are glorifying it over there. In fact, I was waiting for one!

    My mother went this past weekend with some of her friends and called to ask me if I want to go Saturday because she wants to see it again. I'm actually going on Wednesday, with some of my girls, so I'll get to see what all the hype is for myself. Was reluctant at first because the first I heard about it, they mentioned suicide and I wasn't sure if I could handle that. Thought it would resurface some stuff I'd endured.

    But on another note...Khalil Kain? That's enough to get me there LOL!

    Thanks again for the review. Can't wait to share my thoughts on it.

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  19. @Don
    It wasn't a perfect movie but it wasn't Ishtar either.

    Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose acted their asses off.

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  20. @Traci
    Khalil Kain wasn't a cool dude in this movie and that's all I'll say about that.

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  21. Thank you for this! I wrote a similarly flattering post on the film over at my blog last Saturday. I detested all Tyler Perry films, but am glad to say that I've found one that I love. It's a beautiful film, with its flaws surely, but with its enviable qualities as well.

    I'll echo your sentiment about thinking I would hate this adaptation: a sista was wrong. :D

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  22. Thanks Berneta! I know everyone has a right to their own opinion but, I think the movie hasn't recieved a fair shake because people have convinced themselves, that Tyler Perry has dedicated himself to destroying the black race using his movies as weapon.

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