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.
In Shange’s choreopoem, the stage is for women and women only. She trusts the power of women vocalizing their own experiences, particularly as they relate to violence. Shange wrote of her need to create For Colored Girls: "I felt the urgency of the moment to tell the long-untold stories of women." But the rape and abuse narratives in Perry’s film prioritize men’s experiences. One of the most upsetting scenes of Perry’s film occurs when Anika Noni Rose’s character Yasmine, a dancer and carefree spirit, is brutally date-raped. The scene is cut with images of Jackson’s Jo watching an operatic performance of La Donna In Viola ("the lady in purple"—an allusion to one of the characters in the original choreopoem). During the performance, Jo’s husband, Carl, covertly exchanges looks of desire with another male patron. The interplay between Yasmine’s rape and Carl’s flirtation foregrounds male perpetrations of violence and desire in a text that was deliberate in privileging black women’s uncompromising expressions of both desire and violence.
Perry also inserts often brutal male characters during crucial moments in female characters’ expression of angst or pain in a way that is heavy-handed and antithetical to the original text. Men drive the action and the confessionals in the film, particularly in the case of Crystal, played by Kimberly Elise, a woman battered by the father of her children, Beau Willie. In one of his rages, Beau Willie drops the children from their apartment window, killing them. This scene is taken from one of the confessionals of the choreopoem’s lady in red. The lady in red is a powerful author of this tale in the play, moving, acting and reacting to the depth of such pain, but in the film version, Crystal becomes a passive receptacle of Beau Willie’s rage, and all of her actions are in response to his. The play intends to let women own trauma confessionals, but Perry’s male gaze is written all over these stories.
The brightest light of Perry’s production is the remarkable performances; Anika Noni Rose and Loretta Devine in particular have magical moments. As the film ends, the women stand in line, holding each other, wrapped in the weight of their own traumas, a powerful reminder of the number of beautiful, talented black actresses that have yet to find steady employment in Hollywood and independent film, theater and television. Seeing all of these actresses together reminded me that Hollywood is neglecting a powerful resource—black women.
But seeing extraordinary black actresses together is not enough. Perry’s most significant failure is understanding that while black women writers like Shange write about the traumas and hate that black women must constantly negotiate, they also speak to joy, solidarity, and the beauty of blackness. Shange published For Colored Girls during a time when some of the best of black feminist literature, written by luminaries such as Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Sonia Sanchez and Alice Walker, was being published; these authors, too, were able to express desire and violence simultaneously. Each time I read Shange’s text or see it performed publically, I’ve always walked away triumphant, in awe. After seeing Perry’s film, I walked away feeling nothing but sadness.
To hear Perry tell it, black women are forever in flux amidst hate. But Shange’s For Colored Girls grapples with much more than the weight of trauma, injustice and abuse inflicted upon the black female body, the black female spirit. It also revels in the joys of being a black woman—the delights of sisterhood, the majesty of black beauty and the ecstasy of love reciprocated and good sex. Perry’s filmmaking doesn’t rise to meet the challenge. Some literary and theatrical works are so deeply moving that they belong not only to the author, but to the readers who love the work. For Colored Girls also belongs to black women.