For Colored Girls: Holding Everyone Accountable

I am reluctant to write anything about Tyler Perry’s cinematic interpretation of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Was Enuf. I saw it, thought there were brilliant as well as heavy-handed moments, but over all it sits in that nebulous part of my mind where things that neither moved me or offended me sit. It was okay.

What I find more fascinating, though, is the reactions I’m reading from all corners of the black community–from self professed cultural critics to around the way girls–to Perry’s film and how, in most instances, people have found it astonishingly easy to separate Shange’s work from what Perry ultimately presented in movie theaters. So is the power of rabid love and selective memory.

I read Shange’s poem play when I was in high school, and as a black girl growing into womanhood, it was one of several books that I devoured as I tried  to work out what exactly I, me as a person, was to mean not only to myself but to the world at large. It was a painful read because in it were things I’d experienced and things I was terrified of ever experiencing, but there was also a tremendous amount of compassion running through the poems for those women dressed simply in their colored dresses.

In reading a newer edition of the book a few weeks ago, I realized something that others who love the work are reluctant to say. While many of the poems remain lovely — in turns withering, devastating, probing, witty, and kind in examining female selfhood — there is constantly present the truth of the work’s age and the time period in which it was created.

The 1970s was the time of the Black Arts Movement, the flourishing of the feminist movement, the coming out decade for black women who were now finding their voices and the courage to speak about unspeakable things, including incest, rape, spousal abuse, back alley abortions and the hardships of just getting on in the world. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker kicked started the decade with their debut novels, The Bluest Eye and The Third Life of Grange Copeland, respectively.  Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis, Shirley Chisholm were all speaking truth to power in poetry and politics. By the time Shange’s play hit theaters in 1974/75, black female empowerment was in itself a (small) movement and for every rapturous embrace given to For Colored Girls there was an equally vocal dissenting fist ready to knock it down, often from black women and men who thought it said a little too much about what was going on behind closed doors.

Has much changed since the first staging of FCG in 1975? I would argue, yes. What in 1975 was revelation, is in 2010 now seen as pathology. I’ve said before that black girl pain has taken on a certain complexion in the past 25 years; a coloring that has been mixed by films like the Women of Brewster Place, The Color Purple, and Waiting to Exhale, all successful and now seen as touchstones for actors and filmmakers who want to address black female identity and get a broader audience. Black female issues now have a formula and recently the person producing the most popular version of that blend is Tyler Perry. And, we detest him for it.

What folks are really afraid to do, though, is to take issue with the source material. Canonical and in itself a touchstone for two generations of women, FCG is considered sacred and frankly, for purists nothing would have been good enough. What we need to come to grips with is that those issues Shange painted so beautifully and painfully in her choreopoem have been, in our time, worked over to the point of caricature. So that when Kimberly Elise cries for her babies all we can think about is a catatonic Lynn Whitfield crying for her electrocuted child in The Women of Brewster Place; or that a drunk, PTSD Beau Willie is the same tragic man/child that is Hurston’s Teacake in the film adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God (played by the same actor in both films); or that the newly introduced Lady in White has endured the same ruthless gutting of spirit that Celie did in The Color Purple (also with both roles played by the same actor).

None of that is really Perry’s fault. We can moan about what he actually presented, but what would we have done in his shoes? Can any of us honestly say that we would have creatively done this or that?  Black women still face issues of incest, rape, mammyism and  maternal disconnect, sexism and racism, but what people really wanted from FCG the film was a placing of those issues in a modern context without disturbing the compassionate core of the book. But that film would not have been FCG, which in the cyclical nature of cultural narratives has essentially become a root in several pathologies that many viewers are now bemoaning.

Someone on Twitter said that Tyler Perry didn’t trust black audiences to understand poetry and the disingenuousness in that comment was what drove me to write this article, because it became clear to me that people were less interested in what was actually in the book and film than with who visually told the story. Seventy-five percent of the film was Shange’s own words, as was the much maligned DL/HIV storyline, which the author herself added to the newest edition of her book. What I’m trying to say is, we also have to hold Shange and ourselves responsible for what’s up on that screen today as For Colored Girls. The choreopoem is a historical document; one that got some of us and our mothers through tough times, but we also have to acknowledge our ache for a different way of sharing our unique experiences, which after years of being stroked with the same brush is in need of fresher, newer voices to tell it like it currently is. We’ve grown and our relationships with men and the world have not completely change but are evolving. We can’t expect a work from 35 years ago to reflect or encompass that; we have to start painting that evolution, those changes for ourselves.