This is a film about the “ordinary, brown braided woman,” as recited amazingly by Gilda (Phylicia Rashad), invoking the Lady in Red (for those familiar with the book). It’s a film for and about women who don’t need any more apologies, who feel Jo (Janet Jackson) when she says, “I got sorry greetin me at my front door.” It's a film for anyone who has any interest and investment in the lives of ordinary, black women.
Tyler Perry, for the first time in his film career, has produced a work that begs the viewer to understand, relate to, and examine the lives of black women: our relationships with each other, with our mothers and sisters, with men. All of his other films purported to do this, but For Colored Girls is the first one that achieves this goal. Quite honestly the negative criticism from viewers astonishes me. And there's a LOT of it, much of which I read prior to seeing the film. After seeing the film, I can only assume that someone totally without connection to or empathy for black women could hate this film; or else someone who (perhaps understandably) simply can’t look past all of Perry’s previous debacles in order to see the gem that we have in his adaptation of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.
First off, all of the actresses were excellent and seemed to be fully invested in bringing their characters to life. The only weak links were Kerry Washington (Kelly) and Whoopi Goldberg (Alice), although the latter had some moments that were useful in helping illuminate the idiosyncrasies of other central characters. Kerry Washington, admittedly, wasn’t featured heavily in the film. But, nonetheless, her character evoked little sympathy from me. Perhaps it stems from my general issue with Kerry Washington as an actress: she's generally just kind of whiny in most roles. Whoopi’s character seemed underdeveloped and flat, but I think maybe she did as good as she could with the character.
The standouts? Kimberly Elise (Crystal), Thandie Newton (Tangie), Loretta Devine (Juanita), Anika Noni Rose (Yasmine), and Phylicia Rashad (Gilda). Sure, I just essentially named the whole cast. Quick summary of each character, respectively: utterly heartbreaking, deliciously complicated, hilarious fool in love, unfortunately innocent, and lovingly matriarchal.
Probably largely because of the strength of these actresses, Tyler Perry’s adaptation stands on its own, so much that I did not find myself comparing the film with the stories in Shange’s book. But he definitely stayed true to some of the stories and for that I applaud the man. On the level of writing, all was well done. The back alley abortion made me pause because, with the plethora of Planned Parenthood Clinics, I found it excessively stupid for one of the characters to seek out a back alley person to perform her abortion. However, I believe we were supposed to see this character as excessively naive, for even another character called her stupid when she found out about the back alley abortion. Additionally, the pace of the film picked up drastically and almost uncomfortably right after a pivotal moment between Crystal and Beau Willie (Michael Ealy), and the monologues suddenly started to come one after another, back to back. For a moment I was uncomfortable with the sudden rush, but that moment of discomfort went as quickly as it came because the women did such amazing jobs with their monologues.
The adaptation stands on its own also because Perry did a good job of adding some characters, significantly altering some, and creating nuances that separate the film from the original text. There’s the down low brother that one of the characters has to deal with, plus the cop played by Hill Harper. In addition, Gilda, a character I don't remember from the book, definitely adds a certain amount of cohesion that is necessary to hold the story together in film format. As far as nuances, I was struck by the subtle change in Yasmine's clothing style after she has her traumatic experience. After all his previous heavy-handed, overwrought films, I thought Perry would never grasp the importance of subtlety and nuance. Color me surprised.
While some male commentators have criticized the film, calling it black male-bashing because of its harsh portrayals of the male characters (indeed, during the staging of the play in the 70s, many male members of the audience walked out on several occasions), I think that any black man who sees this play and feels that Perry has personally affronted his black manhood needs to take a step back and realize that the film, like the book, is not about black manhood. Stop centering black masculinity in the discussion of a film that is primarily fixated on black women.
It's about black womanhood, which albeit necessarily invokes a discussion of black manhood. But, first and foremost, a black man misses the message(s) of the film if, during the entire film, he is focused on the men rather than the women. The monologue by the Lady in Orange, recited by Loretta Devine, encapsulates the central message of this film and of the book: we, black women, in our culture are perceived by others (and by ourselves often) as not entitled to sorrow, to emotional vulnerability, to weakness even. We are supposed to be strong and take all the shit handed to us, without complaint, without anger. Because, as my grandmother once said, there's no place for a weak, sad black woman in this world. Well, this film is about confronting and reversing that belief, in the minds of others and, most importantly, in the minds of black women. This film is not about pitying black women (as some commentators have alleged, associating its portrayals with Precious, etc.). It's about showing that black women can feel genuine sorrow and grief and pain and anger, and that that doesn't have to make us pathetic or angry bitches or whiny women looking for pity. It just makes us human.
Secondly, such male commentators fail to take into account the depth of the portrayal of the male characters in this film. Only one man, the rapist, struck me as irredeemably evil in this film. All the other males were clearly individuals with deep-seated issues that the film tried to highlight subtly. For instance, during the table scene between Crystal and Beau Willie, I think we are supposed to understand that Crystal feels sorry for him, that on some level we should feel sorry for him; this does not change the fact that we are supposed to want her to leave him because we know that he is poison to her and her family. People are complicated. In the world we live in, people who hurt us and do evil things often have complicated reasons for doing them, whether we know those reasons or not. While it’s important to safeguard ourselves from such people and take steps to empty our lives of such harmful people, in doing so we should always remember that such people are still human beings (even if such people seem to have forgotten their own humanity or the humanity of others). I think we are supposed to experience the same feeling during the last conversation between Jo and her husband, while not letting that sympathy excuse his behavior.
Needless to say, Jo and especially Crystal are also held accountable for the destruction that they allow these men to bring to their lives. Perry makes sure to reiterate the importance of all parties taking responsibility for the damage done.
So, I don’t think this film bashes black men. As a matter of fact, as I read some of this criticism of Perry's film, I was reminded of the type of one-sided, defensive criticism that The Color Purple (book and film) received from male commentators back in the 80s. According to my aunt, many black male commentators also talked crap about Waiting to Exhale back in the day, and that movie in no way bashed black men; there were numerous positive black male characters in that film. As such, I say these commentators need to cut out the petulant whining just because there's a Oscar buzzing film that centers black women.
For all the other commentators (everyone other than the black male commentators) who delivered negative criticism of the film, I don’t know what to say. Anyone who watches this film should know they are in for some gritty material. No one who knows anything about the book or who has watched the trailers should go into this film expecting a pretty story with a neat little ending. But that is what we’ve come to expect from Tyler Perry (pretty stories with neat little endings), so I understand why some critics went in with such expectations and left disappointed. But, alas, I’m proud to say that this is not just another Tyler Perry film. This is a different kind of Tyler Perry film. Yeah, there's still the Tyler Perry melodrama that can be found in all of his films. But this is one that begs its audience to think a little deeper, to be a little more patient, to listen and question. To think about the "ordinary brown braided woman," embodied by each of the characters. For once, Tyler Perry has produced a good film, a damn good one at that. And I'm pretty sure I never thought I'd use "Tyler Perry...film" and "damn good" in the same sentence.
Final sidenote: Thandie Newton was all kinds of crazy sexy in this film, and I’ve never found the woman attractive before. I’d watch it again, just for her.
For all of those who haven't seen the film, GO SEE IT! And for those who have seen the film, what are your thoughts?