Where is the Joy? By Patricia Spears Jones: A Review of "For Colored Girls"
Review of For Colored Girls directed and written by Tyler Perry based on the play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf” by Ntozake Shange. Produced by Perry, Paul Hall and Roger M. Bobb. Now in wide release.
Where is the Joy?
By Patricia Spears Jones
While others watched the last of the Marathon, I went to see the movie version of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf?”. After sitting through the two hours of Tyler Perry’s adaptation, I felt like I and the rest of the audience had been in a marathon complete with heartbreak hill and that final sprint towards the finish line. But you know, none of us were winners.
First I have to give props to Perry for attempting an almost impossible artistic task: adapt an experimental theater work that featured an all female cast who spoke and danced a choreopoem into a two hour commercially viable film complete with male actors and occasional outdoor scenery. Ntozake Shange’s poems are like the crystals in the heavy wooden bowl of Mr. Perry’s screenplay. Indeed, I left the film with an even greater respect for Shange’s achievement and the power of poetry. I wish I could say the same for Tyler Perry.
I left thinking “where’s the joy?”. I was at premiere of “For Colored Girls” at the Public Theater with the original cast. I was amazed and enthralled by the actresses, their physicality, sensuality and the sheer audacity of the play. It was very much a young woman’s work and a majority of the actresses on the stage were in their twenties. Shange’s choreopoem represented a kind of performance work being done at the time. It also was a deliberate and important marriage of contrasting artistic sensibilities: the Black Arts Movement and cultural feminism. She connected African centered aesthetics (colors, religious iconography, naming and historical references) from the Black Arts Movement while simultaneously focusing on women’s lives and spiritual/intellectual growth. In some of the poems this could be very awkward, but it also said these are my issues, my ideas about our lives and they are very important.. And it was very much a work about women talking to, for and about each other. The humor could be mordant, but also silly. Shange was very much in touch with the sense of how women talk to each other about stuff that women always talk to each other about: how you make your day; how you make your bed; with whom are you sleeping; who you wish you were sleeping with; the clothes you want to carry your figure; how you fight for yourself; protect your children; or lose yourself to stupid shit. What is beauty and how do you use it? And then there’s racism.
So what I remember at the end of the evening was a joyful exhilaration and a lot of smiling. Those women on stage played out the joys, sorrows, rage and spiritual quests forged from that inspired combination of feminism and the Black Arts Movement. Perry clearly enjoys writing for actresses especially actresses of a certain age who get to dispense his version of wise women’s sayings. And while many of the actresses in this film give strong and nuanced performances, they have a really impossible task: to marry Shange’s richly textured poetry with Perry’s often clumsy dialogue for a conventional plot that brings disparate women together. So we go from the gynocentric circle of the staged play to the phallocentric tower of the apartment building. The stories to, by and for each woman become bits of dialogue often with male partners.
This shift throws off the rationale for the play—it becomes about the women and the men to the exclusion of everything else. This means that the slutty sensuality of the Lady in Orange (Tangie) played to a fine shriek by Thandie Newton is turned into a confused and sort of angry woman who sleeps around. No Joy. This means that the wonderful Toussaint L’Overture poem is read by Phlyicia Rashad to children while their mother is being beat up. No joy. It means that the nice young man you’re cooking for comes to your apartment to rape you and we get to see him take off all his clothes, but not rip yours off—odd. Indeed, with two exceptions, the men are often disrobing or naked, but not the women. A play that so much celebrates women’s bodies becomes a film that does a great deal to hide them.
The plotting and plodding screenplay underlines a problem with Perry’s aesthetic. He seems to think that his audience must be told just about everything so that THEY WILL GET THE POINT. He brings the play into the 21st century with the introduction of the prevalence of HIV in the Black community and how partners’ lies leave Black women vulnerable. But he does not do a corresponding plot point with the issue of abortion. Why didn’t one of the elder women do the back street abortion poem? Why couldn’t the character, Nyla nicely played by Tessa Thompson, have a safe and legal one? Why couldn’t Macy Gray’s performance of “I used to live the world, but now I live in Harlem” been a woman drinking on a stoop? Oh no, she has to be that illegal abortionist. Why does the evangelical woman have to be crazy? Christian Black women can be stern without being a caricature that Whoopi Goldberg has to play. And why did Hill Harper and Kerry Washington have to represent every kind of authority figure (cop and social worker) like a couple from One Life to Live or The Young and the Restless. Oh and they have issues too-the only smart, kind positive male figure in the movie is paired with an infertile woman.
Indeed the soap opera aspect plays out in the design; the photography and the sound design. The cinematography makes this movie look like it should really be a TV special. And the editing is often jumpy and overly ambitious (the rape scene that intercuts a brutal rape with an opera performance is particularly difficult to watch). The cinematic aspects of this film lack confidence and artistry. Clearly Perry is on a learning curve when it comes to filmmaking, but there are so many fine directors including women directors who might have approached this material in more interesting ways—Kasi Lemmon, Julie Dash come to mind.
Anika Noni Rose, Kimberly Elise, Ms. Newton and Loretta Divine allow Shange’s poems to shimmer and shine in their voices. Ms. Elise has the most difficult task of sustaining the much too long build up to the Beau Willie Brown brutal act. Am I the only one who thought when Jo, the Janet Jackson character said “where’s the page” why didn’t Crystal, Elise’s character simply go to her computer and print it out. Perry’s story arc and concerns leaves audiences talking more about how crazy or lying or brutal the men are than how sensuous, intelligent, and resourceful the women become.
This seems to be a film full of confusion about Black female sexuality (like there is not a hint of lesbianism in this movie) and Black female agency. The play that interwove a circle of women whose talk amongst themselves brought the audience to deep laughter or tears (when Trazana Beverly did the Beau Willie Brown monologue the whole audience gasped, then cried) has become another film about suffering Black women. But more than anything, the play explored the interiority of Black women, their capacity to find the divine within, which is why it ends with “I found God in myself and loved her fiercely”. The film tried to capture the spiritual quest and the gaining of agency through the cutting up of the “I’m Sorry” texts, but mostly these seemed like set pieces for comic relief that didn’t quite work or set ups for the wise women speechifying. This is a far cry from that deep interior scrutiny that the poems revealed.
I think that Perry genuinely cares about the lives of Black women. I really do. And he is fascinated by older Black women and the getting of wisdom, thus Phylicia Rashad as a kind of “fixer” of people’s lives in her apartment house—she becomes a one woman deux ex machina moving the plot along. But this film fails to find a way into that circle; to allow these women to really “sing a black girl’s song”. Even the ending, on that roof top is stiff and off kilter. The film’s cast tries so hard to give the poems a final shine. Kimberly Elise does her best to rise of above those tears, but the clumsiness of that scene reminds me of how powerful the women were at the Public Theater. They encircled each other with a knowledge of their own power to sing the words of a great new poet amongst us. The women on the roof top may have found a way to stop the “I’m sorry” moments in their lives. But Perry has not given them any joy.