Monday, November 8, 2010

"Ordinary Brown Braided Woman": A Comment on For Colored Girls

“I had convinced myself colored girls had no right to sorrow and I lived and loved that way and kept sorrow on the curb, allegedly for you, but I know I did it for myself, I couldn’t stand it, I couldn’t stand being sorry and colored at the same time, it’s so redundant in this modern world. Lady in Orange, recited by Loretta Devine

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" 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?


  1. I saw this yesterday. And I cried and cried.
    It was the most moving thing I have ever watched. I went with a grown black man -- he cried too. It was too much. I totally agree with your sentiments here. Completely. I can't get it out of my head and I'm holding on, as a coloured girl who's faced some of the issues in the film and is still grappling with them, to the end of my rainbow. The rainbow has to be enough.

    And GIRLL!!! Thandie was the hottest. Them orange jeans -- "I feel you watching my ass old woman!"

    Fantastic performance all round from all the players.

  2. I read your review. It was very well articulated. Of course we disagree on many aspects, but I think a lot of that is natural. Although open to viewing by anyone, as you stated, the story (the original one, not T. Perry's interpretation) was written by a Black woman, about issues mostly relevant to Black women. I definitely don't think it's necessary to "not have empathy for or hate Black women" or not be able to get passed it being a T. Perry production in order to dislike the film.That's absurd. Broad generalizations like that are almost always wrong. Even if you like something, you have to be able to acknowledge that their are legitimate reasons why someone else doesn't like it. Plus, why is it wrong to consider the maker of something when constructively critiquing it? Wouldn't it be relevant who the maker of a film about 9/11 was? Wouldn't it impact your perception if the maker were Dick Cheney as opposed to Michael Moore? Yes, Shange's original product was focused on the women in it, their experiences, and how they overcame difficult situations-I get that the focus of the movie are the women. And although I liked it (for the most part), I was still uncomfortable with the portrayals of Black men, as I think a lot of Black men would many Black women have been with the portrayals of Black women in a slew of different movies. And, it isn't wrong to question why Perry chose this film to "adapt", given his pattern of making movies that often portray Black men (with a few exceptions) in a negative light (And, by the way, The Color Purple-the film, not the book- deserved much of the criticism it the book at least some of the male characters were redeemed, not so in the movie, which portrayed all the men as just plain triflin' or abusive). Tyler Perry is in many ways an enabler, feeding into the dysfunctions of many of the women who seem to love his films the most..basically, he tells his main audience what the want(not need) to hear. It's great that he gives Black actors/actresses work, but that doesn't make him immune from criticism. I'm not saying he can't make whatever movies he wants, but some balance would be nice, and I simply don't see this dramatic difference between For Colored Girls and his other work..other than some poetry thrown in. Of course I'm aware that I am unlikely to be able to "feel" this movie the same as a woman, just as there are movies/songs,etc. that resonate with me more as a Black man. What gets me are the women going bananas because someone doesn't just blindly love the movie..there are a lot of movies I really like, but it doesn't bother me one way or the other if someone else doesn't.

    We all see things differently though;). Your review should be a good conversation starter.

  3. @ Bri: thanks for your comments! It was definitely one of the most touching movies I've seen in a long while.

    @Elliot: thanks for your comments as well! I think from a technical aspect and simply from a character development standpoint this film was a drastic departure from Perry's other films. For instance, usually when Perry gives us an evil male character, we have no sense of why the man is that way. In this film, he not only develops their motivations but also outright prevents us from writing them off as evil (except the rapist, of course). Evil one-dimensional black male characters have been the root of my beef with Tyler Perry since I first saw one of his stage plays (not to mention the fact that the evil dudes were usually very dark-skinned).

    Also, I care about what people say about the film because it is based on one of my favorite books. A book that changed my view of myself (and my writing). That would be the difference between your investment and my investment in this film. No, I won't go bananas because someone hates it. People will see whatever meaning they want to see, period. I find that most people go into a movie (or any situation) expecting to see a particular result and that's what they will see ultimately. I personally went into this film with no expectations: I thought it might suck, I thought I might be surprised, I thought it might be so-so. I had spent most of the summer loathing the idea that Tyler Perry would be making this film, but before the movie came out and after I'd read so many nasty reviews, I thought I'd just clear my head and see what happens.

    My thing about many people's reviews is that they are flat out nasty: citing Perry's potential homosexuality and his own messed up childhood to undermine the legitimacy of his work in this film. It's one thing to draw parallels between the writer/director and his work (to say that it would serve Perry well to examine how his own anxieties are materializing in his work), but it's another to flat out say, "He's gay himself, so of course he has a problem with real black men," as if being a gay black man precludes one from being a real black man, as if being molested by men makes one gay. And that's the underlying rhetoric that I'm seeing in many black male critical responses (and the obvious rhetoric of black male commentators in the comments sections on those review pages). That's immature and nasty, and only indicts the reviewer as an intellectually-underdeveloped and misogynist human being. Only Sergio from Shadow and Act seems to deliver a fair and mature assessment of the film. In addition, these same black male commentators seem to have film amnesia, suggesting that there have been no black male heroes recently in film: Pursuit of Happyness, Iron Man 2 (Cheadle), The Book of Eli, Miracle at St. Anna, Karate Kid. The real problem is that there's not enough decent portrayals of BLACK PEOPLE in general, but I find that black male critics always want to weigh oppressions between black women and black men and claim that the black man is always the principal object of oppression.

    But at the end of the day, this film is about black women. And harping on about black men in the film only strikes me as a covert misogynist impulse to divert attention away from a discussion of black women's lives. That is my problem with most of the black male reviews I've seen so far. Some of them bring up excellent points but cloud it in so much oppression olympics (i.e. the world is hardest on the black man) and misogynist garbage (i.e. saying stuff like the film is another movie about black women whining) that I end up not caring.

    Btw: I share your sentiments about the film version of The Color Purple: I was really annoyed that the film writers chose to get rid of all those sections of Mister and Celie bonding as friends after all the abuse, those moments that helped humanize him.

  4. @Bri and Elliot M Thanks for stopping by JBT!

    @Berneta I absolutely loved the film and your review in their entirety! Like you B, I didn't know what to expect, and I wondered if Tyler's efforts would be underwhelming. Anywho, I'm SO very proud of him for pulling through with his best work, and I hope this is just the beginning.

    I just glanced over Very Smart Brothas' blog, "The Balancing Act: 4 Reasons Why Movies Dealing With Black Love (Seem To) Sh*t On Black Men," and Elliot M's comments. My opinion of the film is very different and not just because I'm a woman, but maybe because of how my mind works. I understand that mass media has its' way of influencing society, but are we really having a conversation about Black manhood based upon a few male characters in a fictional movie based upon a fictional play? I never have taken a fictional portrait of black femininity as personal as some of the remarks from commentators I've combed through. Instead of comparing myself to film, I chose to be a living example of what I'd like to see in the world (of sound mind, able bodied, bright spirited, genuine, and imperfectly human). And if I came across a book, an article, a movie, or a song that personally attacked me, my gender, my religion, my race, and so on, I'd do what I could to correct that not by whining, but by contacting some of my favorite filmmakers or producers or writers and telling them what I'm interested in or maybe even doing it my damn self. I've heard some women with comments very similar about films like Precious, but I'd be crazy by saying the fictional characters in the movie are a direct representation of me and ALL black women. NOT! People, let's remember that these are just characters we're talking about with real-life issues and experiences and NOT all black women or men...just characters. The truth is this stuff does happen, and it warrants a much-needed conversation about those issues and solutions verses how a few characters were depicted. I'm just saying.

  5. Did you heard what Rob Matts said about that?

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