Early reviews are in for Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls and, from what I glean so far, they… ain’t … good. I’m silencing much of the critical chatter about the film for the moment. While I have little to no faith in Tyler Perry’s ability to take an amazing piece of literature and a tribe of class “A” black actresses and make something remarkable, I want to be an informed and fair cultural critic.
I’ve said much of the same to my NYU students in our discussions about film adaptations of black women’s literature. I’m teaching a course on black women’s writing traditions that spans from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to Sapphire’s Push. I couldn’t help but notice that a number of books on our reading list have been adapted to screen: The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and now, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (yes, the whole title is important).
If far more black women’s texts have been adapted to the screen than black men’s, it is likely due to the renaissance of black women’s literary production in the 1970s and 1980s (coupled with Oprah’s bankrolling of several book-to-film projects). But I’m also interested in the fact that (black) male directors seem to be at the helm of a number of these projects. I don’t think that only black women should head black women’s cultural productions. I would much rather a skilled director of whatever gender bring black women’s stories to screen. Unfortunately Hollywood privileges dollar signs over skill and, like it or not, Perry is one of the most lucrative black directors of all time.
Even more fascinating for me is the appeal of black women’s trauma stories to Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry. Both directors have disclosed experiences of abuse that informed their interest in Precious and For Colored Girls. Perry’s appearance on Oprah to recount his childhood sexual abuse, in the weeks leading up to the release of his film may be an effort to identify with black women’s sexual trauma. To be sure, black men’s literature seldom explores the sexual abuse of black boys. It is not unlikely, then, that Daniels, Perry, and other men may see their own experiences reflected in the stories of black women.
At the same time, Hollywood greenlights Tyler Perry’s film projects because they draw box office receipts. The events that led up to Perry taking charge of a film Nzingha Stewart was set to write and direct are fuzzy and while Stewart is credited as an executive producer on the project, I can’t help but wonder if the power Perry wields in Hollywood enabled him to hijack the film that he claim’s “chose him.”
Next week, I’ll be teaching Shange’s choreopoem and allowing her words to take hold of my students’ imaginations. Most of them have never read it. As the national release of Tyler Perry’s film approaches, I can only hope that others who haven’t heard the music in Shange’s words will read it along with us.