All the shades of the female experience

2011-05-06 09:08

An all-star cast brings a seminal piece of feminist theatre to the big screen. However with Tyler Perry at the helm, controversy is sure to follow For Colored Girls, writes Gayle Edmunds.

For writer and director Tyler Perry, drama – and lots of it – is life. And there’s more than enough drama in ­playwright Ntozake Shange’s gut-wrenching social commentary, For Colored Girls Who Considered ­Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.

Her piece is a powerful feminist dialogue, so it’s little wonder that eyebrows were raised – not least of all Shange’s – when Perry was ­unveiled as not only the ­producer of a film adaptation of her ­seminal work, but the writer and director.

According to Wikipedia, the ­playwright had the following to say about Perry heading the project: “I had a lot of qualms. I worried about his characterisations of ­women as plastic.”

Most of the criticism directed at Perry concerns his cardboard-cutout representations of women and his tiresome zeal when it comes to driving home his point.

He and Spike Lee have had a public spat and the internet is ­covered in vitriol about Perry taking on For Colored Girls.

Many devotees of Shange’s work see it as a betrayal of a great piece of feminist literature to have Perry in charge.

Apparently, he hijacked the rights from young filmmaker Nzingha Stewart and relegated her to the minor role of executive producer.

However, his pulling power – on average, his films each take $25 million (R166 million) on their opening weekend, according to www.boxofficemojo.com – coupled with the controversy ­surrounding the production, means that many more people have ­already seen For ­Colored Girls than would have if it was made by an unknown director.

But for all the Perry-bashing, there is one thing no one can take away from him: he has broken very important ground by ­offering filmgoers an alternative to what are colourfully termed ­“motherf****r” movies.

His African-American characters are not packing heat, gun-running, drug-pushing, prostitute-bashing gangstas.

Instead, they are, for the most part, ordinary middle-class folk dealing with the myriad issues that affect us all.

For Colored Girls mostly steers clear of Perry’s usual paperdoll types ­because the original material is not his own.

Incidentally, For Colored Girls, which ironically sounds just like a Perry movie title, doesn’t only refer to the play being about black women. It also refers to the colours that represent the original ­characters – brown, red, green, ­orange, yellow, blue, purple and white. In the play, none of the women has a name, which further “universalises” their experiences.

Obviously, Perry had to give each character a name for the film ­version and though he tried to keep the colour threads throughout, he doesn’t succeed. Unless you know the original material, you are unlikely to pick up on the ­
colour ­references.

However, this film’s other talking point is its all-star cast, which was used to good effect to sell the ­movie in the US.

The film is about the lives of a selection of vastly different women facing the dilemmas borne not only of their gender, but of their race and socioeconomic realities.

Heading the cast is Kimberly Elise as Crystal, a mother who ­endures unspeakable anguish at the hands of her husband (Michael ­Ealy). Elise, who featured in Perry’s The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, gives a profound performance as this unfortunate character.

Someone who is no stranger to Perry films is Janet Jackson. The music megastar is, alas, a rather ­terrible actress. Here she produces the character Jo, a career-driven woman whose marriage is cracking under the pressure.

However, thanks to Shange’s great writing, she gets to deliver one of the film’s most memorable monologues – and she does it remarkably, given her thespian ­limitations.

Anika Noni Rose, who was the least famous Dreamgirl in that film, has gone on to prove that she is an actress of substance.

Every part she tackles is pure gold, and in this she is Yasmine, a woman who discovers, brutally, that some men are not what they ­pretend to be.

The remaining women are played by Loretta Devine, who is her usual irrepressible self; the ­so-so Thandie Newton, who takes on the role that Mariah Carey turned down after finding out she was pregnant; the wonderful Phylicia Rashad, who has been on stage rather than screen for many years (more’s the pity); Kerry Washington, who is one of the few characters in a ­functional relationship; and Whoopi Goldberg, whose character represents the dangers of religion as a fallback position when facing up to the past is what is needed.

For the most part, Perry’s film adaptation trots along, with the characters’ lives crossing over and connecting along the way.

The story’s brutal centre is ­handled well and Perry is ­surprisingly restrained in handling the ­aftermath.

But he lets his penchant for ­melodrama get the upper hand ­towards the end of the film.

“Less is more” is not a concept that Perry is familiar with and in this story’s case, it applies in spades. Often, ­actions speak louder than words, but Perry keeps on ­getting his characters to put their final point across one more
time unnecessarily.

This is what finally stifles Shange’s voice.

The playwright, when asked about the finished product, was ­circumspect, saying: “I think he did a very fine job, although I’m not sure I would call it a finished film.”

And though it’s 30 minutes too long, it’s not finished because the simple message of the original – ­defined by the author – that “only by defining and living out their own destinies unsubjected to the whims of the oppressors, no matter their race or sex, can women ­become whole, self-sustaining ­humans”, is ultimately lost in ­Perry’s concluding muddle.

Perry’s inability to write ­well-rounded female characters is not because he is a man – plenty of men write brilliant women.

One shining example is the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar whose films – which include All About My Mother, Volver and most recently Broken Embraces, the winner of the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year – capture the female experience perfectly.

Perhaps having worked with such important feminist material as Shange’s will help Perry better ­understand and portray the female psyche in future – without ­reference to men.

But I suspect that Madea’s Big Happy Family, which is coming soon, will see him return to the God-fearing-woman-in-need-of-a-good-black-man standard that has stood him in such good box-office stead – ­inexplicably with
female audiences.

»For Colored Girls opens at cinemas on Friday

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