The film For Colored Girls is directed by Tyler Perry and based on the stage production For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange. From left to right, Kerry Washington, Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni Rose.
The persistent criticism of For Colored Girls as a yet another film in the canon of Black Female Misery Porn or as being too ambitious, misses the point. It’s like criticizing Schindler’s List for being anti-Semitic or Titanic as a harsh commentary on American naval engineering. For Colored Girls draws from a work celebrating the profound pain and spiritual rebirth of the black woman – and if you didn’t know that, shame on you. It’s not always all about you, brutha. If there is a problem with For Colored Girls, it’s Perry taking a “choreopoem”— a creative framework inspired by non-Western storytelling traditions that incorporates movement and sound to relate a happening, rather than a linear narrative—and trying to shove it into a traditional three-act structure. And without context. He was always going to fail, no matter what. Anyone else would have too. But what a brave misstep.
Perry’s foray into adaptation reminds me of director Anthony Harvey’s troublesome take on Dutchman, a complex, deeply disturbing play, written by Amiri Baraka, about a buttoned-down black man and a deranged white woman on a seemingly unending subway ride to depths of American depravity. Created in a time when discussions of what to do about angry black men and the unrelenting “Negro Problem” entranced a nation (sound familiar?), Dutchman made it from stage to screen, with a first-time white director at the helm, largely intact. But not without controversy. Harvey was a British film editor known for his artistic approach. Perry is known for making entertaining films on the cheap. For Colored Girls, like Dutchman, was always going to be too much for some, not enough for others and problematic for everyone is some way or another, no matter who had the chutzpah to adapt it.
Art is never “too ambitious” – most often, it’s not ambitious enough. If anything, Perry should have taken more chances, visually and otherwise. All in, and judged strictly on the merits, Perry’s was a worthy effort. His mistake is that he chose to expose a largely unsophisticated audience to a complex piece of art without context, using commercial Hollywood’s aesthetic sensibilities. Movie audiences, and black audiences in particular, have lost touch with their critical eye for cinematic art. Yet Perry challenged himself and his audience by reaching back to a difficult text. Sadly, he lost before he had shot a single frame. For Colored Girls isn't perfect. But his adaptation is fearless in a way we haven’t seen in black cinema for years.
Jimi Izrael is the author of The Denzel Principle: Why Black Women Can’t Find Good Black Men and a regular contributor to Tell Me More.