Tyler Perry almost walked off wid alla my stuff

22 Nov

An open letter to my students, my close friend, and my mother:

When I left the movie theater after watching Tyler Perry Presents For Colored Girls I felt like Tyler Perry took something from me.  I went to see the film with a close friend and I was ready to feel some of the complexity of black womanhood that I had experienced as a child seeing the play with my mother, then taking my siblings to see it, then seeing it on my own last year, and having read the book.  I recognize that oftentimes details get lost in translation from play to movie (not film), but I don’t understand how Perry took a play that is all about black women’s agency and turned just about every female character into a helpless victim in the movie.

What’s worse is that Ntozake Shange’s play found a way to bring all Black women into the fold, but Perry’s film feels like an invasion in all of my intimate relationships with my students, my sister friends, and my mother (and her friends).  He took women who were so familiar to me and made them unrecognizable and now those of us who disagree with his representations are either arguing with women we care about or choosing to be silent, in pain.   Why, if he loves us so much and can greenlight films, wouldn’t he create the space for one of many talented black women filmmakers, like Gina Prince Bythewood or Julie Dash, to tell this important story with the delicate tenderness that it deserved?

Where was the joy?  What about finding my first blk man, Toussaint L’Ouverture, in the library and bringing him home to be my secret lover at the age of 8.  Why was this beautiful story wrapped in the sound of domestic violence and frightened children?  Why did it have to be told as a distraction, rather than as the powerful black girl story that it is?

Tyler Perry almost walked off wid alla my stuff

What about the complexity of a black woman who is dealing with the challenges of being lonely and alone, being exceptional and ordinary/reglar, being a desired object and a sexual subject in her own life.  The lady in red is hyperfeminine, but she is nobody’s fool in the play.  She made sense to me, she had a system; dare I say, a routine.  She knew what she wanted, she got it, and she was aware of the consequences.  But this Thandie Newton woman was unrecognizable because she was reckless and an empty version of a rude floozy.  I never read the lady in red as reckless, rude, or a slut because my For Colored Girls is not about external flat readings of black women.  My For Colored Girls is a myriad of inner voices whispering, singing, screaming to make us make sense to one another and ourselves.

This is mine/this ain’t yr stuff/

now why don’t you put me back & let me hang out in my own self

Who are these people?  This is the first film for and about Black women where I think Black men have every right to be angry about their representations. Who was the date/stranger rapist who begins undressing himself like he came through the window when he was invited in through the front door?  And what recently raped woman tells her story partially clothed to a male cop in a hospital room after completing a rape kit.  And where were the white people?  Yes, white people who symbolically represent the ways that white supremacy gets all up in our relationships and constricts our lives such that our reactions seem pathological.  Without some utterance of the ways that white supremacy is at the root of many of these stories just about every person in the film seems crazy and irresponsible for making “bad choices” even though we know their options are clearly limited.  Without them, let Tyler Perry tell it, Black men and women are the only ones directly oppressing Black women, and Black women are to blame for their circumstances.

Stealin my shit from me/don’t make it yrs/makes it stolen

Tyler Perry almost walked off wid alla my stuff

…it waznt a spirit took my stuff/ waz a man…trying to sell/tell our stories because he can only see us as a loyal and lucrative market segment.  In his warped profit-driven configurations Black women and White people were most likely to see the film, and since Black men were not his target audience he could comfortably blame the lion’s share of our oppression on them—and us.  This strategic move cleared the way for White people to absolve themselves of any institutional or cultural responsibility and for them to feel comfortable recommending the film to their friend$$$$.

But luckily I know Black women; I see them and feel them in all their complexity.  I have loved them for a lifetime and they have loved me back.  Shange’s For Colored Girls is about the LOVE that keeps us alive.  A sometimes painful love, an oftentimes delicious love, but mostly it is a deep love that we share with each other when it seems nobody understands or supports us.

I am looking past the stormy Perry cloud for my Shange rainbows and with time I will find a way to point out the rainbows to my students, my close friends, and my mother because I am keenly aware that it is the sharing of our voices and stories that keeps many of us from committing suicide and moving collectively to the ends of our own rainbows.


19 Responses to “Tyler Perry almost walked off wid alla my stuff”

  1. julia November 23, 2010 at 7:35 AM #

    Been trying to find ANY kind of response from Ms. Shange herself re: this…this…this ruination of her work…nothing. If anyone can point me to it, I would appreciate it…I still wonder how the HELL this happened. Does the writer not have any control over who produces films of her work? Of course, I will never go see the movie, because that just means more money for tp. I may have “white” skin, but “some of us have brains”.

    • Johnathan November 24, 2010 at 10:14 AM #

      I’ve heard that the only reason Ms. Shange even allowed the production is because she was in a financial bind. Of course she’s not going to speak out about the injustices of this film…she’s probably restricted by contract.

  2. crunktastic November 23, 2010 at 8:14 AM #

    My soul says, “Yes!” Beautifully written, CF.

  3. rboylorn November 23, 2010 at 10:13 AM #

    This is my co-sign (to Crunktastic).
    Yes, yes, yes!!

  4. Asha November 23, 2010 at 11:34 AM #

    This post is gorgeous in its truth!!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • Skye Ward November 23, 2010 at 8:56 PM #

      Thank you, CF.

  5. Tina November 23, 2010 at 4:10 PM #

    I think this critique may be one of the best I’ve read so far. I also think I have a different perspective though, having not ever seen the work performed before the fundraiser screening I attended. It’s hard for anyone to read the original work and not be struck by the experiences of pain Black women overcome. The movie had a persistent negativity without the nuances of stories like the Toussaint L’Ouverture tale, but I didn’t walk away from the choreopoem with an overwhelming sense of Black women’s agency. Perhaps if I had seen it performed in a theater first, or even read it with a group of people, a group of women sharing their thoughts and perspectives of the work, I might have felt more agency, much more love shared between the women, but I didn’t. The greatness of the original for me stemmed from how it was created, that it was created, by and for Black women. Tyler Perry obviously didn’t choose to use his resources to recreate that greatness, but it’s unclear to me whether he can even see the complexity of voices in the original that made it FOR Colored Girls. I don’t expect (or desire) him to define Black womanhood, so the significance of his film in relation to the lived lives of Black women is limited to me. I remain unconvinced that he has the power to even come close to walking off with any of our stuff.

  6. Shareese November 23, 2010 at 6:07 PM #

    This says all that I felt save the comparrison to the play which I never did get to see. But specifically the victimization of us (black women) disgusted me!

  7. Rain November 23, 2010 at 6:08 PM #

    Beautifully written. I have yet to find words. All I can say I came out with a ferocious headache.

  8. sheridf November 23, 2010 at 8:29 PM #

    I appreciate the positive feedback. I can’t wait until Jasmine Guy’s For Colored Girls tours the nation to put the universe back in order.

    @tina I think he should not have the power to “walk of wid all our stuff,” but until I can be in the company of my close black women friends and family without them bringing up the movie and being fiercely protective of TP he has definitely got something that I cannot name, but I want it back.

  9. sheridf November 23, 2010 at 8:42 PM #

    @tina. The thing to remember is this play debuted in the 1970’s, pre The Color Purple book or movie, during the time of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan report that blamed Black women (not Jim Crow segregation or white supremacy) for the state of the Black community. And Black women’s voices were REALLY absent from public discourse. This look beneath the surface, particularly stories told in the first person (not in music), was ground breaking. The book comes after the play, so definitely think about the power of these stories in action on stage. It’s electric because you hear little girl stories and grown woman stories, sensual stories, painful stories, country stories, urban stories, and diasporic stories. The diversity of black women’s stories were all wrapped into one powerful play where we all got to “talk back” to everyone. I’m telling you it is something to experience and I can’t wait for people to truly get to see the real rainbow.

  10. Chike November 23, 2010 at 9:12 PM #

    It was asked how Shange herself feels about the movie.


    “I think it’s very good,” was Ms. Shange’s unhesitant verdict on Mr. Perry’s adaptation. “He kept a lot of my language, that’s what I liked most.”

    • crunktastic November 23, 2010 at 11:05 PM #

      Well, what was she gonna say? “It sucked.” It is clear she made some pragmatic rather than artistic negotiations in order to bring her work to a new generation and for economic benefit. Given her health challenges, I’m sure the economic incentives play a role. And beyond that, I think Black women often make the negotiation to separate their project from the filmic project. Alice Walker did. Sapphire did. They know that the film becomes someone else’s artistic vision for the project rather than their own.

      That doesn’t mean that the critiques being made aren’t valid. And look at what isn’t said. She didn’t say she liked it. She said she liked certain things about it. And I will admit this. As film adaptations of Black women’s novels go, it isn’t the worse story ever made. It just doesn’t stay true to the spirit of her text. And it’s hard not to like parts. The acting far outshines the talent of the director.

      At this point, I think folks need to ask themselves why they are invested in defending a person that clearly works out his own demons by demonizing Black men and Black women. He isn’t doing any of us any favors, and Black women should not back down from holding him accountable. Someone has to, and clearly Black men aren’t interested in doing so. They are instead interesting in blaming us. Go figure.

      • Chike November 24, 2010 at 6:47 AM #

        What Ms. Shange feels about the movie most certainly does not determine whether critiques of it by others are valid or not. I did not intend to suggest as much – I merely pointed out to the person wondering what she thought of this “ruination of her work” that she did not share such a negative perception of the film.

        I am a bit disturbed, however, by what seems to me like an attempt to disregard and distort Ms. Shange’s perspective, rather than take her at a word. She says it was very good, and you speculate that she sneakily avoided the word “like”. Except she didn’t, of course, she goes on to say what she liked *most* – and you leave out the “most” to twist her into saying “I liked certain parts” (something she did not say).

        Since Ms. Shange’s perspective does not determine whether any other critique is valid or not, I don’t see why anyone should be so invested in denying or minimizing her support and appreciation for the film.

      • crunktastic November 24, 2010 at 8:24 AM #

        I’m skeptical. Admittedly. I find it interesting that she said what she liked most was that he kept a lot of her words. The thing is, he pieced those words together on different characters in ways that totally effed with her meaning. How could she like that? Her text as another commenter said, “left us with joy.” His left us with pain. Do you really believe that he got it right or that she thinks he did? In fact, there is very little vocal criticism from Black women authors about the adaptation of their works to film. But as a scholar of African American’s women’s lit, I’d be willing to argue that folks like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston (would) have problems with the adaptations of their texts to film. I also specifically remember Sapphire saying that she had to make peace with the fact that Lee Daniels vision in Precious was something altogether separate from her project in PUSH. She also didn’t say anything critical in public. I know for a fact that Alice Walker, while having made peace with the adaptation of the Color Purple, was not overly enthused by Spielberg’s adaptation. She even submitted her own screenplay for it, but it was rejected. So part of the reason that I think my skepticism is justified is because we have a long history of Black women’s public criticism of Black men not being received well. So often we simply say very little and we say what’s safe, because we don’t want to be seen as ungrateful particularly when there are folks who have positive reactions to the adapted work. I’ve read several of the Shange interviews around the text, and I’m always amazed at the brevity of her comments rather than the seeming approval they give.

        But we agree that regardless of Shange’s statements, Perry is not above critique. And to the extent that his projects continue to promote negative perceptions of Black people, and Black women in particular, the CFC will continue to give him the side eye and hold his feet to the fire.

      • Chike November 24, 2010 at 6:52 AM #

        Corrections: that should say “take her at her word” and “”I liked certain things” (something she did not say)”

  11. E. Anderson November 24, 2010 at 1:12 AM #

    Thank you for this (and previous critiques). As a white, butch, queer who came up reading and loving and feeling inspired by Shange I have a different investment in the work than black women do, but I too was disappointed/disheartened (though not surprised) by Perry’s adaptation. For me it comes down to the fact that Shange’s work is about joy and Perry’s is about punishment/pain/suffering. I have heard many woman say Perry is “just speaking the hard truth” but Shange told a truth that was always laced with light and power and beauty. There was never any doubt of the complexity of Shange’s women. Perry’s women are not suffering with the kind of pain you learn from and overcome, they are mired like Sisyphus, rolling an endless boulder up an unproductive and unforgiving hill.

    I agree, also with your observation that the absence of white people in the movie creates a strange vacuum in which black women’s choices/agency/etc. exist in a world where institutional racism is never explicitly seen and is only implicitly named in distant, unseen institutions like the military. As a white viewer Perry’s film re-creates/reinforces/perpetuates a myth of black on black pathology that is particularly damaging because the film-most notably in its actresses’ performances–is so emotionally engaging/persuasive in other ways. I fear that many white people will view this movie as an exploration of “black issues” without understanding the culpability of white people/white supremacy in the shaping of each of these character’s lives (because Perry completely leaves it out). I think many folks leave the movie feeling emotional but unfortunately neither Perry nor the mainstream media critiques give the viewer the proper lens through which to interpret the experience of the film. Shange told hard truths and left us with joy, Perry forces us to endure one painful and disconnected scene after another and calls them truth.

  12. Tisha November 30, 2010 at 10:36 PM #

    Reading this critique I honestly feel that as a black woman I have missed out on something special at never having seen the play preformed. And I will not be seeing the movie.

    As black women are voices are missing in this society. We allow our men to reduce us to twerkers in their videos, and we allow this all with a smile.

    I for am tired of being quiet, tired of others projecting their views of us to the world.

    This critique is a welcomed start to the dialogue to wrestle back our self image.


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