Like many Black women of my and the generation before mine, Ntozake Shange’s classic work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the RainbowIs Enuf changed my life as a young girl. I was captivated by the book and wowed by the stage adaptation of the choreopoem. I had never heard poetry performed that way on stage before. Seeing girls and ladies who looked and sounded like the ones in my family, and indeed, like me, complete with wrapped heads and flowing skirts rocked my world.
Fast forward to the early ’90s. I am working on my first book. Writer and award-winning video director Nzingha Stewart, (pictured below) who I met through the fierce and amazing singer-songwriter Res, agreed to interview with me for it to share her insights and challenges on being a Black woman writer director who wants to bring projects to the big screen. When I learned that she had optioned and was screenwriting For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide… I was elated. She seemed a perfect fit to birth and lens the project. Having shot videos as divergent as Bilal’s “Soul Sista”, Common’s “The Light”, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Ya Money”, I knew she’d bring a nuanced creativity to a filmed version of this work, which, if it were going to be made at all, needed to be handled with grace and integrity. Otherwise, a lot of sisters’ feelings would be hurt.
Fast forward again to 2009. The buzz begins about Tyler Perry producing the film. I’m skeptical, but remembering that Stewart was on board, I wasn’t mad. His name had done much for the eyeballs and awards love Precious received. And, though his films are not for me, he’s a box office ringer–and he’s African American. Sounds like a great collaboration. Nzingha’s vision with Tyler’s machine. I exhaled…until the buzz amped up and Perry was now producing, writing and directing.
I tweeted that if Madea showed up in a monochromatic costume I was calling The Reverend Al Sharpton! Suddenly, there was no talk of Stewart being involved and it seemed like the train had left the station without her; casting was set, production was underway. My heart went out to her. It took me 7 years to birth my book; I could only imagine how long she had worked on Shange’s adaptation. Shadow and Act posted a piece about the politics of the situation looking shady…then that post was gone, replaced with an interview with Stewart who was now being credited as Executive Producer (and rightfully so) and being very delicate about how when Perry gets involved he tends to do so…fully.
While I was very unhappy about the personnel change, I was glad Stewart was getting compensated and credited for what truly is a passion project for her. I don’t get that sense from Perry; I think for him, this was an attempt to get deep and expand his base. For me, this would be the first film of his I would support at the box office. Proof already that he was expanding his reach and gaining the interest of a new pshychographic of Black woman; one who doesn’t go for gut-bucket, cross-dressing humor. Sidebar: I actually saw Why Did I Get Married on cable and really enjoyed it, so don’t mistake my citical thinking about For Colored Girls for “haterade”. I actually want this film to win for too many reasons to name.
I attended a group screening and discussion organized by Nicole Moore of thehotness.com and Imani Uzuri. I paid my $14.50 and thus, as a customer, am entitled to my opinion. I will also share some of the anonymous feedback that women in the discussion group had, so you can get a feel for how this film left many of its viewers. My take:
This cast is phenomenal. Even the actors you may have your issues with are on point in this film. I went to support them and my sista girl the Executive Producer, and in that sense, I was not disappointed. These women own Shange’s words and reminded me of why I loved the book so much. Even the male supporting actors are strong in the film–but we’ll get to the images they portray later.
I was surprised to see Shange’s poems dominate the dialogue in the film. I really didn’t know what to expect as far as the script was concerned, given how ambitious an adaptation this is. I also frankly had low expectations because the writing I have experienced from Perry’s films is made for mass black consumption, often lacking dimension or room for the viewer to draw their own conclusions before the “lesson” is smacking you upside the head. There was less Perry and more Shange here, and from a writing perspective, less was more.
I did appreciate how Perry connected the characters in the setting he conceived for the story. The downside of this is that it came across as very ‘The Women of Brewster Place’ with everyone except three female characters cooped up in a five story walkup in the ‘hood, intercating primarily with Social Services (embodied by Washington), the local hospital, and NYPD (Hill Harper). Stereotypes on Parade. Which brings me to The Bad.
As a music supervisor and former music industry executive, I was deeply dismayed by the score. Talk about a downer. The vibrancy of these women was not reflected in the music. Shange’s poems are musical in and of themselves, and deserved better accompaniment at certain points. Huge missed opportunity, especially given there is a great soundtrack for the film, and many places where music could have been playing as part of the texture of the film: hel-lo! We are Uptown, baby! Black people are big on music…even when things aren’t going well–actually, especially then!
Speaking of music, the one time we get an extended play of a song, it’s during a very awkward opera scene which is intercut with a violent scene (no spoiler), diminishing the impact of the latter in an effort to feel epic. Epic fail. Don’t go there Tyler, that’s Coppolla territory.
The scope of the enviornment was very narrow. Low income living is the norm in this film. Their emotional struggles aren’t enough apparently, they have to be hoarding (in the case of Whoopi’s character), scheming for money (see breakout star Tessa Thompson’s character), or scraping out of pocket to give back to the community (Loretta Divine’s character). We don’t even see anyone in the building eating a proper meal. Only the characters with means come to the block; the tenants are never seen off of it (except for Kimberly Elise’s character, who has to leave since she works for Janet Jackson’s character in the City–and Thandie Newton’s bartending character). Perhaps this was purposeful, but the Colored Girls I grew up on were not limited by their location; their sense of freedom was evident. These women felt trapped and downtrodden.
Women’s bodies are under assault in this film–and not just by some of the characters Shange created, but by Tyler Perry himself. Sexual freedom is tied to whoring out of being molested; losing one’s virginity is a near death sentence; reproductive choice is thrown back to pre Roe v. Wade in its portrayal, with abortion unequivocally struck down as a sin; HIV becomes the payback for one character being a cold, callous, untrusting boss and wife. A down-low brother violates one Colored Girl (not in the original book or play). A rapist violates another; a serial abondoner yet another. The one woman in a healthy marriage destroys her chances of childbearing with an untreated STD (not in the book or play).
The message Tyler hands Black women is that sex is bad, dirty, dangerous, deadly, and forced upon you–and you are pretty much powerless to stop or change it. This is not how Shange portrays women’s sexuality. A proundly disastrous example of what happens when the director’s point of view about women’s sexual experiences and power taints the adaptation.
Spirituality and non-traditional faiths take a hit in the film as well. Goldberg’s character is a religious zealot in white whose own demons show up in her relationship with her daughters, which are fractured and devoid of communication without arguments or fights (so much for piety and peace).
Her version of prayer drives a wedge between her and her daughter instead of bringing them together. Is this a comment on religions or belief systems that differ from the Black church? Sure made the Yoruba look unattractive.
For Colored Girls leaves out the core transformative element of the book and play, where these women are confronted with horrific circumstances, and yet they find God in themselves and love her fiercely as one poem asserts. They rise above and learn the greatness and beauty of who they are in the process. In Tyler’s version, they commiserate and hug, almost reluctantly, laying on hands, yes–but metaphorically throwing them up in despair at the same time. If there is any victory for these women, it’s swallowed up by the tribulation, leaving a real sense that Black women are defined by pathology and not their responses to it. It’s like we spent two hours spiraling in multiple forms of emotional hell only to find out that resignation had won. These colored girls’ growth was brutally interrupted. This better not mean Perry has a sequel in mind.
I must add here that this film has heavy adult and sexual themes and should not be seen by tween girls or boys and younger until you see it first. I felt bad for the moms who took their girls like ours did to the play. NOT THE SAME THING AT ALL. Screen this movie first. Parents got blindsided by trauma after trauma and I’m sure had a lot of unanticipated explaining to do afterward.
Alright. Now for some of the reactions from the room in the lively and thoughtful discussion I attended afterward. We were asked to go around the room an introduce ourselves, adding a word to describe how we felt after seeing the film. Some included: exhausted, reflective, angry, robbed, violated, not surprised, surprised, drained, cheated, still processing.
There was great issue taken with a progressive black feminst work being adapted by what one person called “a right wing conservative Bible thumper”, and that knowing this, the outcome of the film makes sense.
It was felt that the film, while flawed, would bring a new generation to Shange’s work and audiences to the play, which has been in the works for a return to Broadway since 2007, so in that sense, people appreciated that the film got made. One younger woman said that seeing these women go through these things will help other women make their own choices.
One woman loved seeing such great Black woman actors perform Shange’s work. That was breathtaking without a doubt. Another woman remarked that there was far too much trembling from the cast, as if they were barely holding it together or awaiting another tragedy, even in benign conversation.
A couple mothers of young Black sons were dismayed by the rehashing of ‘brothas as dogs’ in the film. To be fair, many of these characters are in Shange’s book, but there was a missed opportunity to give them more dimension or elicit some compassion for their plight, especially in the case of the war veteran suffering from depressive illness that drives him to do the unthinkable. Another noted that the one redeeming Black male character, played by Hill Harper, is also a representative of law enforcement, which gave them conflicting feelings, given the presence of police terror in our communities.
I am hoping that my contribution to the box office that placed Tyler at #3 this weekend will enable more serious black subject matter by other filmmakers, producers and screenwriters of color to get greenlit. Here’s to Nzingha Stewart getting to see her vision through from start to finish the next go ’round. She and Gabrielle Union are producing partners and have an adaptaion of The Vow in the works, so make sure you support that! You can learn more about Stewart in her very telling interview with me from Put Your Dreams First here.
Have you seen the film? What did you think? Did you see the play or read the book before or after? If not, do you plan to read it? Post your comments here and let’s talk this thing out!