Why So Much Fury Over 'For Colored Girls'?

Tyler Perry's film "For Colored Girls" has received widespread criticism and praise. Even the White House had a screening. To get a taste of what reviewers and the public had to say about the film and how it compares with the 1970s play by Ntozake Shange upon which it was adapted, host Michel Martin speaks with Wesley Morris, film critic for the Boston Globe; Bob Mondello, art critic for NPR; and Bassey Ikpi, a Nigerian born poet-writer and mental health advocate who has written articles about the film for The Huffington Post.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, something you probably didn't know about actress Kimberly Elise, one of the stars of the film "For Colored Girls." We'll tell you what's playing in her ear.

But, first, we wanted to talk a bit more about that Tyler Perry film that's received tremendous attention. First lady Michelle Obama hosted a screening of "For Colored Girls" at the White House this week. And some of that attention has been in the form of acclaim - and some remarkably vitriolic criticism. You probably know that Mr. Perry adapted the play by Ntozake Shange. It's called "For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf." And his adaptation sparked such a strong reaction from some reviewers, that there were reviews of the reviews.

So we thought it deserved another conversation, to find out just why people felt so strongly about it. Joining us today: the Boston Globe's film critic, Wesley Morris; we also have with us NPR's art critic, Bob Mondello; and writer and poet Bassey Ikpi - she's written about the film for The Huffington Post. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

BOB MONDELLO: Great to be here.

Mr. WESLEY MORRIS (Film Critic, Boston Globe): Hi, Michel.

Ms. BASSEY IKPI (Writer, Poet): Thank you.

MARTIN: And just to establish his cred, Bob Mondello has brought with us the original cast album of the 1976 Broadway version of "For Colored Girls." So you wrote - let me just say what you wrote. You said that the film mostly achieves what it sets out to do and is, consequently, less than it wants to be.

MONDELLO: Yeah. My idea is that by changing it into conversation, by making it conversational, he took away the theatricality of it, whereas the art of what Ntozake Shange did doesn't feel like art when you take away all of the presentational quality and points.

MARTIN: But you kind of liked it.

MONDELLO: I did kind of like it. I had a much better time at it than an awful lot of critics did. I think partly because I loved this show so much when I was a kid, that I brought a lot of that to it.

MARTIN: Now, this is interesting because Bassey, one of the reasons we called you is that you wrote two pieces about it before you saw it, and then after you saw it. And one of the things you said is that you have felt so protective of this piece, like a lot of African-American women or women of color, I should say, because you're - well, you are African-American.

Ms. IKPI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Originally from Nigeria.

So, a lot of women do feel very protective of this piece. And you wrote about that you felt that way, too. But your reaction to the film - not so much.

Ms. IKPI: Yeah. I thought the film was terrible. And I tried to, as much as I could, to remove myself from the protectiveness of the play, and give Tyler Perry a chance to wow me and a chance to, you know, do something else. Because I've seen "Chicago" and "Chicago" was translated differently, and I love "Chicago" - the movie and the play.

I felt like by putting a narrative to it, what he did was remove the everywoman quality that so much of us attach to it. So it became these characters doing things, and we couldn't really identify with what they were doing because he had a narrative in order to push his own agenda.

So what he did was, he mixed up poems - like, there's a beautiful poem about sexual awakening and how beautiful and wonderful and powerful that is. And he put that with the abortion poem, which is - those are two different characters.

MARTIN: Basically, women have sex, they get punished.

Ms. IKPI: Exactly. And that's what every character who enjoyed sex or liked it or...

MARTIN: Had it.

Ms. IKPI: Got punished somehow.

MARTIN: So, your objection was the politics of it, how you feel his worldview was imposed upon it, or was it just the filmmaking itself?

Ms. IKPI: All of it. I felt like his dialogue and Ntozake Shange's dialogue - was jarringly different. I don't think he understood the poems. A lot of poems, he put in dialogue. And I was, like, that's not what that poem means. Like, what is he doing? Between the time I heard he was doing the movie, to when the movie came out, should have been at least another three years.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IKPI: To study...

MARTIN: So he could study the material.

Ms. IKPI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Okay. All right, well, I just want to say that Bassey, I appreciate that you're just being really blunt about it, but your review is actually kind of nice. I mean, you sort of give Tyler Perry his due. You talk about how well - it's well shot. It's well acted and so forth. Not so much our friend Wesley Morris. Let me just read a line from his review.

It's astounding. It's terrible. It's astounding. Then terrible again. It's too much. Too much screaming, too much crying, too much preaching, too much reaching, too much healing, too much feeling.

And then it gets really mean. So Wesley, would it be fair to say you hated it?

Mr. MORRIS: No. I mean, I don't hate it. And I do really, honestly, mean that it is both astounding and quite bad. He didn't know who this movie was for. And I think in a lot of ways, the thing that I don't think enough people are really talking about in one sense is that this movie really isn't about black women. This movie is about him. And this movie is about something that he went through, is going through. And he is very comfortable as a black woman, among black women and

MARTIN: Just to pause for a minute, just to give people a sense of what we're talking about. Along with the rollout of this movie, Tyler Perry has - the director - has been very vocal about the fact that he was abused - sexually abused as a young man. He was sexually abused by at least one woman, and he was physically abused by his father, and this has become a big part of the conversation about it.

So on the one hand, I think you do have to applaud him for being willing to talk about something that, like "For Colored Girls" - one of the reasons it was so powerful was that it talked about things that were not very much discussed when it first came out.

Mr. BONDELLO: Right. Absolutely in 1976, for sure.

MARTIN: And I think it is fair to say that right now, the sexual abuse of boys and young men is also something that is not very much discussed. But I think still, Wesley, just as a film, you know, Bassey's talked about part of what she's bringing to it as an African-American woman. Do you mind if I ask you if part of what you are bringing to it, as African-American man, is that you don't like the way black men are depicted - which is pretty badly.

Mr. MORRIS: It doesn't really bother me at all, in some ways. I mean, I - on one hand, I'm not inured to it. But I accept that in the realm of what Tyler Perry is actually giving us is a world in which these women are struggling not only with themselves, but with this idea of the indomitable, abusive black male. I don't really see that, though, as something that is really, in this particular case, about black women. I think it is about Tyler Perry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: But this is a movie about nine black women, given to you by a black man. And you know, there's a lot of things you have to parse when dealing with what actually is being - the message being delivered - both in the movie, and sort of slightly beyond it as well.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We are talking about the film "For Colored Girls" with Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe; Bob Mondello of NPR; and poet and writer Bassey Ikpi, who has written about the film for Huffington Post.

One of the things, Bob, I wanted to pick up on is, have you often seen a case where a film evokes such widely varying reactions, and why do you think that is?

Mr. BONDELLO: You see it every once in a while. I think people actually don't know how to deal with this. They admire the craft of the poetry, and then there's the fact that Tyler Perry has tried to make you forget that it's poetry, for the most part - which is, in theory, kind of a neat thing but if you care about the art...

I have to say, I'm looking at this in a - sort of a practical way. And when I talked about this in my piece on NPR, my reaction was, okay - my reaction to it, it's not hugely affirmative, it's not hugely negative; I'm just sort of in between on it. I'm kind of more interested in process than I am in anything else. And the reason I was so interested in process was that originally on Broadway, this was seen by maybe 500, 600,000 people - that in the opening weekend, this movie was seen by millions. It's important that Shange's work gets out there, and it's important that it's something new for film. I think it's significant by itself.

MARTIN: Can I ask you - we had the opportunity to interview Ntozake Shange on this program. And I asked her, you know, what the reaction for years has been. Oh, this film is too negative, it's too depressing. And she said - and the way she said it was really funny. She said it's For Colored Girls.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And in essence saying, if you don't like it, fine. But it isn't for you. And I have to mention, Bob: You are not a colored girl.

Mr. BONDELLO: This is true. I'm definitely not in either of those categories.

MARTIN: Either. Either. But you did love it. And I wonder why - the play, the choreopoem - and I wonder, if you don't mind, do you remember why you loved it so much?

Mr. BONDELLO: Oh, god. It was so theatrical. What I remember was this enormous flower in the center of the stage, and almost nothing else on stage. And these women came out, and it was so presentational. The kinds of plays I saw back then were basically "Death of a Salesman," that kind of stuff, and this was so different from anything. Bringing it to film was always going to be problematic because film just doesn't work the same way. It's basically a realistic medium. It's hard to do theatrical in film.

MARTIN: At the end of the day, do you feel that this film is worth seeing?

Mr. BONDELLO: Yes.

MARTIN: Bassey, you love this play so much. Youve performed it. You've memorized some of the monologues; I'll confess that so have I.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I was bracing to hear them again because I thought, wait a minute, I know that. At the end of the day, worth seeing?

Ms. IKPI: Yes. In the follow-up piece that I did for Huffington Post after I saw the movie, I don't want to invalidate the people who felt something when they saw this movie. I want to encourage people to go because it makes people familiar with Ntozake Shange's work. And if they read the actual play I feel that they will get more from it than they did the movie, and the movie is a nice first step.

But I also want to touch on something that Wesley said, which is that Tyler Perry is repeatedly making movies about himself. And I felt like "For Colored Girls" would have been a great opportunity, if he wanted to do that, to sort of inject some healing into the tragedy that he's depicted previously in his movies. And instead, he turned this wonderful celebration of triumphant overcoming and celebration and joy - at the end of the day, you find God in yourself as a colored girl - and he made that into a tragedy too.

And I feel like he should have told Tyler Perry's "For Colored Tyler" - who, you know, whatever. Like, he should have done that because that would have been more powerful for me. It'd been revolutionary for black men to see that on screen. And instead, he falls back into where he's comfortable - which is in this Madea role, where he's all covered up and he's wigged, and he's not authentic. And the inauthenticity of the movie is what upset me the most.

MARTIN: Interesting. Wesley, final thought from you. Do you think it's, at the end of the day, worth seeing - being mindful of the fact that our audience is very diverse. There are people from all different backgrounds who will be bringing all different life experiences to their viewing of it. Worth seeing?

Mr. MORRIS: One of the things that I find interesting about the critical reaction to this movie, and the reaction among certain members of the audience, is that people aren't used to watching movies that work this way. Tyler Perry makes what I call department-store films. They've got comedy on floor three, drama on floor four; on floor six there's like, some combination of the two. You know, the first floor is tragedy. I mean, there's a lot of things happening within what is often about a two-hour movie. And I don't think we're used to watching movies like that anymore.

And the truth is that in the '20s, the '30s, the '40s, these sorts of melodramas were what people went to the movies to see. It drove me crazy, in some ways, because he's really reaching for something with this that he was not going for before. He's - it's like he saw "Precious," which he executive-produced, and really was blown away by how legitimately good the filmmaking in that movie was. And I think he really wanted to try to top his friend Lee Daniels. And I think that there's also that yardstick that he's trying to surmount, too.

But I mean, basically, Michel, it's entertaining. The acting is phenomenal. He just sort of mishandles the source material - what for many people is in a, you know, egregious way. But I think it also demonstrates how elastic Ntozake Shange's work is, that he can extract this - basically this gigantic soap opera from what, essentially, is not that at all.

MARTIN: Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Boston Globe. He joined us from Boston. Bassey Ikpi is a writer and a poet who writes about culture for the Huffington Post. Bob Mondello is art critic for NPR, and he and Bassey joined us here in our Washington, D.C., studio.

We will have links to all of the pieces that we've been talking about, all of their reviews, so that you can read what they had to say for yourselves. Just go to npr.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. IKPI: Thank you.

Mr. MORRIS: Always a pleasure.

Mr. MONDELLO: Thank you, Michel.

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