A few months ago I wrote about Jasmine Guy directing a stage version of Ntozake Shange‘s famous 1976 play For Girls Who Have Committed Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf in Atlanta this summer.
Now Lionsgate has announced a feature film version of the play to be adapted, directed and produced by Tyler Perry.
Tyler Perry plans to tell us about black women’s experiences
Yes, that Tyler Perry — the man who made $125 million last year by bringing us movies like Madea Goes to Jail, the latest in his popular franchise of wacky-grandma movies he has written, produced, and starred in.
Because there’s nothing funnier than movies starring a black man in a dress — especially to all the talented black actresses who can’t get good roles if their names aren’t Halle Berry, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, or Beyoncé.
Perry as Madea in Madea Goes to Jail
To be fair, Perry has also made Why Did I Get Married? (2007), which was pretty good (and more importantly, introduced me to Jill Scott‘s acting talent). And he’s a co-executive producer for Precious: based on the novel Push by Sapphire (2009), which is a serious, lesbian-inclusive look at poverty and abuse (although it’s worth pointing out that Perry didn’t actually write or direct this film).
But For Colored Girls is the exact opposite of the parade of stereotypes that was Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), and Daddy’s Little Girls (2007), which revolved around the stereotype of the lonely career woman (played by Gabrielle Union). Not to mention the Madea movies.
For Colored Girls — a series of searing poems telling stories of love, abandonment, domestic abuse and other issues faced by black women — dismantles exactly the kind of stereotypes Perry has spent his career promoting.
In a recent article about "Tyler Perry’s Gender Problem", The Nation‘s Courtney Young wrote:
Though Perry repeatedly references his admiration for and allegiance to African-American women as a foundation of his work, his portrayal of women of color undermines the complexity of their experience through his reductionist approach to his characters and his dependence on disquieting gender politics. Perry may see himself as creating modern-day fairy tales for black women, but what he may not realize is that fairy tales, in general, have never been kind to women.
Perry, Young goes on to write, uses a traditional religious paradigm as the linchpin for his work, which relies on traditional ideas of gender and reinforces rather than revolutionizes the marginalized way that black womanhood has been portrayed in popular culture.
In other words: the female characters Perry writes tend towards caricature rather than complexity. And For Colored Girls is nothing if not complex.
Jezebel’s Latoya Peterson had a similar reaction to the news, asking "Is Tyler Perry the Right Man to Tell Black Women’s Stories?"
Directing? Fine. Producing? Cool. But writing and adapting it? From someone who writes flat, two-dimensional woman characters in all of his work?
Even under the best of circumstances, I would be skeptical of a black man tackling a project like this. To bring Shange’s vision to light would take an understanding of why this work of art is so deeply intertwined with black women’s articulation of their own struggles under racist, patriarchal oppression — something that unfortunately, many still deny to this day. Black women’s voices are often lost in discussions of race (because all the blacks are men) and discussions of gender (because all women are white) and Ntozake Shange was beyond brave to put down all of these ideas and present them for public consumption even in the face of heavy criticism from black men when the play was released.
Do I think it’s impossible for Perry to make a decent adaptation of this play? No. But let’s assume for a moment that he can — it’s still hard to argue that a talented black female filmmaker wouldn’t bring more to the table for this particular project. Why not let an actual black woman write and direct this movie?
The answer, of course, is money. Perry is a bankable asset, a name with a large following. There are a lot of talented black female filmmakers out there — women like Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees, Love and Basketball), Angela Robinson (Hung, The L Word), and Tina Mabry (Mississippi Damned), to name a few — who could make this film, and probably do a better job of it than Perry. But Lionsgate would rather go the financially safer route, even if it means the movie isn’t quite as good as it could be, which is pretty much what the studios always do, regardless of the current state of the economy.
But if studios won’t even hire black women to make a movie about the experiences of black women, what will they hire them for?
Not much, apparently. There have only been a handful of major feature films written and directed by black women. According to sistersincinema.com, the first was Darnell Martin‘s I Like it Like That in 1994, followed by Robinson’s Herbie Fully Loaded in 2005 and Sanaa Hamri’s Something New in 2006, and Prince-Bythewood’s The Secret Life of Bees, Martin’s Cadillac Records in 2008, and Hamri’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 in 2008.
L to R: Filmmakers Darnell Martin, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Angelina Robinson
That means only six of the thousands of studio films made in America over the last 50 years have been written and/or directed by black women. Make it eight, in case I’ve missed a movie or two.
While black female filmmakers are making inroads, the fact that you can still count the number of major studio films written and/or directed by black women (and women in general, but that’s a post for another day) on one or maybe two hands is disheartening, to say the least.
How will black female filmmakers ever become bankable assets themselves, if they’re routinely overlooked in favor of men?
In a recent interview, Mabry told us that seeing films like Prince-Bythewood’s Love and Basketball "made me believe that a woman could be a powerful filmmaker if given the correct training." Hiring Perry to write, direct and produce For Colored Girls sends the opposite message.
Although maybe we should just be glad he’s not starring in it, too.