What is the price paid when a director widely considered to be anti-feminist interprets a beloved black feminist text for film? Can a piece as endearing as Ntozake Shange’s 1975 classic choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Not Enuf reach its full cinematic potential outside the hands of a black female director? When movie mogul Tyler Perry first announced he would be reviving the celebrated text for the screen, many fans of the original production reacted with dismay, worry, even anger. A deft combination of poetry, music and movement, the choreopoem gives life to the voices of seven unnamed women distinguished on stage only by a singular color of dress. The piece allows each woman to relay her story frankly, at times through a collective narration, airing a host of issues that affect black women’s lives—rape, abortion, domestic abuse and child murder, but also love, sex, and friendship. Would the complexity of black women’s lives and voices survive in Perry’s hands?
Before the film even hit theatres on November 5, reviews were running the gamut. At The Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt eviscerated the film as "too crude and stagy for Shange’s transformative evocation of black female life." New York magazine’s David Edelstein excoriated Perry’s translation, concluding, "He has taken Shange’s landmark poem cycle…cut it up, and sewn its bloody entrails into a tawdry, masochistic soap opera that exponentially ups the Precious ante." But not all reviewers found the film to be an unmitigated disaster. Mark Anthony Neal, a professor at Duke University, writing for The Loop, asserts that, "The film’s commercial success marks one of the visible moments for mainstream Black Feminism, within a national culture that has been largely ignorant of Black feminist writing and art."
The $20.1 million raked in over opening weekend undoubtedly makes Perry’s first R-rated film a financial success. But its initial popularity in no way mitigates Perry’s ultimate transgression, committed by so many when adapting classic works: failing to present the characters as they are, rather than as he wants them to be. Perry’s refusal to stretch the boundaries of black female expression, which is key to Shange’s text, beyond the scope of his own familiarity indicts his direction.
A number of recurring themes inform or, at times, dictate the actions of Perry’s female protagonists across his films, with religious messaging being one of them. His choice to center For Colored Girls on this theme is no exception. But Perry fails to fully comprehend Shange’s complex portrayal of the ways that black women find God. Shange articulates a spirituality that is fluid and introspective, even divinely feminine. Religion is never centrally cast in the text; spirituality is rather understood as a vehicle through which black women communicate with each other and with themselves. Arguably, the most widely quoted moment in For Colored Girls is when the "lady in red," one of the most memorable characters of the production, asserts, "I found god in myself & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely."
Perry understands religion to be much more domineering. Whoopi Goldberg’s character Alice (created solely by Perry and not found in the original text) is a religious fanatic, who literally hoards one daughter and divorces herself from the other with dogma. Conservative religious (as well as homophobic) agendas abound in a reading of Janet Jackson’s character, Jo, who discovers her husband secretly has sex with men and has infected her with HIV. When Jo confronts her husband, he retorts that his actions are in part a reaction to her refusal to submit to him, and dim her professional ambitions.