For Colored Girls Review
Or Black Men Behaving Badly…Again!
So I recently watched For Colored Girls on DVD. Most of you reading this are aware that it is the screen adaptation of Ntozake Shangé’s 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf. Any African-American involved in the Arts knows this play and almost all Black Female Actors have performed one of the roles at some point in their career. I will gloss over the usual “review” and cut straight to the important part. What did I think of the film and what does it mean beyond 2 hours of entertainment?
First let me say that from an acting point-of-view you will be hard pressed to find a more stellar ensemble performance. All of the female actors were brilliant and one male actor in particular, Michael Ealy (playing the character Beau Willie) deserves a special nod for his intimidating, suspenseful, powder keg like performance of an abuser that drops his two kids out of a 5th floor window to their deaths. Unfortunately as much as I praise Mr. Ealy’s performance his character, as with virtually all Black male characters shown and implied in this film, is the usual Black relationship bad guy that has gained such currency in films since The Color Purple. And that is the major problem I had with For Colored Girls. The brilliant acting by the women in particular only further endears you to their suffering but AT THE EXPENSE of the converse effect of making you “hate” the Black Man. Now before I continue I will grant that the film isn’t necessarily straying that far away from the source material nor what Ms. Shangé has alluded to in subsequent interviews. For instance in Christopher Nelson’s interview on the website The Grio Ms. Shangé responds to the question “What is the lesson for Black men in this [film and play]?”:
The lesson is don’t beat and hurt women. Don’t lie to us. Don’t get us pregnant and leave us in an alley. Don’t pretend you’re coming for dinner when you’re coming to make love. There’s a whole lot of lessons in there for young black men. There’s a whole lot they could do. They need to take a notepad with them to the movie, and write down I can’t do that no more, oh I can’t do that more, oh I can’t do that more. And see how many pieces of paper they have when they leave, if they were honest. You should have a truth session.
-Ntozake Shangé, Playwright
The problem is that the above absolves individuals (i.e. Black women) of taking responsibility for their own choices number one and number two it’s the same us vs. them dichotomy she wrote in 1975. As a film adaption it would have been more relevant and artistically rewarding for Tyler Perry (the film’s director, writer and producer) to bring us into 2011 with a relationship conversation that takes into account we live in a much more diverse society and one in which Blacks no longer occupy the comfortable position of being the #1 racial minority in America. In other words let’s be more relevant in an age where the President is bi-racial and self identifies as an African-American and Hip-Hop is king. Let’s have a visual conversation that doesn’t just attack Black men but brings them into the conversation because don’t Black men have their own laundry list of complaints? I’ve said in the past that it is quite telling when you see how many Black actors and athletes marry or date non-African American women. Whether it’s Wesley Snipes’ almost exclusive penchant for Asian women or NBA player Lamar Odom’s recent marriage to Khloe Kardashian we see it more often than not that when many Black men have the means to marry other than Black women they they seem to do so. This film never addresses those internal conversations.
For Colored Girls treats Black men like the source for one’s pain as if one’s own choices had nothing to do with the state of one’s existence. Take for example the character of Tangie (Thandie Newton). She is let off the hook for being the “slut” character by basically blaming her many sexual trysts on a grandfather that molested her, a crazy mother (who was only crazy because the grandfather also molested the mother and called her ‘ugly’), and a slew of sexually carnivorous usually married Black men who eagerly jump in bed with her. So the film is saying “it’s the Black man’s fault” for “making her this way.” This is problematic on several levels but one of the things that it does is it continues to strip Black men of their manhood because Mr. Perry chose not to provide a white male jumping into bed with her. Nowhere in the film is there a bad White male. When you don’t provide other males it basically relegates the Black man to a kind of “other” man. Not a true man but a unique deficient and flawed man. Afterall…what other men do you see?
Practically every Black male character is a bad guy to some degree or if not they are a somewhat emasculated or unrealistic Black man like Donald the cop (Hill Harper). He and his wife Kelly (Kerry Washington) find out while both are with the physician that she cannot conceive. The doctor states “this type of infertility is usually the result of an untreated STD” much to Donald’s surprise but not hers! Kelly goes on to explain how she got the STD from, you guessed it A BAD BLACK MAN! See the trend here? While Kerry was in college she was dating a man who was also sleeping with her two best friends (oddly all knew this) and basically Kelly ended up getting an STD. But the film absolves her of ANY responsibility for her actions or for her “lie by omission” for not telling her husband. She cries while recounting the story of this “playa” and how he stole her love and the director Mr. Perry decides to make Donald totally “understanding” and sympathetic to his wife’s poor choices! Okay fine. It would not be my artistic choice as a writer and director but I haven’t built a $500 million dollar film franchise like he has. Let us juxtapose this however with the Janet Jackson character (Jo). Jo is the overbearing, arrogant, ‘rich witch’ of a boss of a fashion magazine married to a handsome, muscular, well dressed and educated Black man (Carl played by Omari Hardwick). The problem is Carl is on the down low which is Black American lingo for a man that perpetrates that he is heterosexual and displays none of the stereotypical effeminacy of a Gay man but is in fact engaging in homosexual affairs. These affairs resulted in Carl catching HIV and passing it on to Jo. The problem I had with this other than this theme of victimhood in the production? Carl basically did something very similar to what the Kelly character did but there is no sympathy for him. He is not “understood.” There is no sad story of his struggle with his sexuality or stories of the uncle that said come sit on my lap. And by having the STD be ‘the biggie’…HIV (and its AIDS connotation) it’s hard to have sympathy for someone like that. He didn’t give her a less catastrophic disease like herpes for example. And Mr. Perry very slickly provides Ms. Jackson with some dialogue that shows she was responsible about getting tested before she got married thus cementing her righteous victim status.
Now I am not anti-Tyler Perry as much as say Spike Lee is. I just don’t find most of his work to be all that good nor uplifting. But I am also under no illusions that feature filmmaking is an exercise in social good. At the end of the day Perry makes movies that he thinks will make money and so far Black people, his core audience, seem to prefer laughing at Black men in drag. With all of my problems with this film For Colored Girls only pulled in $37 million dollars. Perry’s more notable films like Madea Goes To Jail did $90 million dollars at the box office. But don’t cry for Mr. Perry. For Colored Girls had a budget of only $21 million dollars so it was quite profitable even though it did poorly.
As a writer and a culture critic my biggest issue with the film is that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table other than to give us some brilliant performances by all of the actors. Kimberly Elise as the abused mother of the dead children gave an Oscar worthy performance. Loretta Devine showed her years of skill as an actor. Anika Noni Rose gave a heart wrenching performance as the rape victim and Phylicia Rashad’s portrayal of Gilda was exemplary. In fact she was the only character to voice even one line of “Black woman responsibility”…but it was literally only ONE LINE in the movie. For Colored Girls just simply continues to perpetuate the notion of Black woman victimhood at the hands of no good Black men. It continues to absolve women of poor choices in who they decide to be alone with or allowing their own sexual passion of the moment to take over intellect? (as most humans do by the way). Now with that being said…make no mistake…I am one of the biggest advocates of people telling their own stories. And as a man I can recite chapter and verse on the shady no good characters we have although I am also informed by how we came to have them. I also do not extract Black men from manhood i.e. can’t White, Asian, Latino, Native American women recite similar stories? Are these stories unique to “the Black man”? I can and have been a huge critic of men in general no matter what descriptor we embrace. Down low brothers are a scourge! Not because of their sexuality but because of the deception behind it. 50 year old dead beats are lame and tired! But what I am not seeing in film, art, literature and yes I’ll say it LIFE is Black women holding themselves accountable for THEIR OWN HAPPINESS and getting out of the comfort and culture of victimhood. So we need to continue to tell our stories including failed relationships. But those stories need to be inclusive and frankly since no one is doing it (even when the director is a Black male)…Black men need to tell their own stories. I guess I’ll have to get to writing.
Brother Dash is a poet, writer, photodude and social media aficionado. He has performed spoken word poetry throughout the world to over 100,000 in total, has made numerous television and radio appearances, is a published poet, and has released two full albums of poetry. His next album “Poetic Justice” will be a multimedia project available in late 2011. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or can be liked on his facebook page by searching Brother Dash.