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.