Somebody took all their stuff: The New and Old Colored Girls
Somebody took all their stuff
By Peter Howell
“Being coloured is a metaphysical dilemma,” a character says in For Colored Girls, and the thought follows that maybe Tyler Perry got this difficult stage-to-screen adaptation half right.
The writer/director behind the exceedingly broad comedy of the Madea franchise approaches the hit 1970s Ntozake Shange play with a pragmatism that succeeds in form but not in function.
A playwright himself, Perry has solved the metaphysical dilemma of what to do with a unique performance piece, originally titled For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, that debuted in 1974 in a California coffee house.
The play was 20 narrative poems (a collective “choreopoem”) declaimed by seven actresses, each of them assigned a rainbow colour (it was the Seventies, after all). Observations and agitations were made about abortion, infidelity, promiscuity, date rape and self identity.
This wouldn’t work in a movie — not a mainstream one, at any rate — so admirer Perry sensibly provides the structure of a Harlem tenement house, which is presided over by watchful new character Gilda (Phylicia Rashad, superb).
Flowing into and around this building are those seven rainbow characters, played by a strong cast: Thandie Newton (Tangie/Orange); Janet Jackson (Jo/Red); Whoopi Goldberg (Alice/White); Anika Noni Rose (Yasmine/Yellow); Loretta Devine (Juanita/Green); Kimberly Elise (Crystal/Brown) and Kerry Washington (Kelly/Blue).
Perry adds a few more characters, notably male ones, and he handles the play’s poetry like the slams of the 1990s, allowing figures to simply throw down rhymes as the mood strikes and the narrative allows.
So far, so smart, and we can forgive the outdated “coloured” reference on the grounds of historical accuracy.
But Perry’s house comes tumbling down when the winds of misguided political correctness blow through. His vision of black women — and remember that he plays one in his Madea role — is almost entirely negative. As Marshall McLuhan might have observed, Perry gets the medium right, but not the message.
To be black and female in For Colored Girls is to be a victim of unending misery, and the cause of that misery is invariably black males.
One unhappy lady is promiscuous because her daddy abused her, and her lovers aren’t much better. Another is threatened by her psychotic ex-soldier boyfriend, and so are her children. An unwanted pregnancy (and botched abortion) threatens the life of one woman; another’s cheating husband results in a terrifying doctor’s report. And so it goes
In his obviously sincere desire to identify with and support black women, Perry neglects the equally urgent need to celebrate them and their achievements. A hokey “Kumbaya”-style gathering on a rooftop doesn’t cut it.
Is it really necessary to depict black men in such uniformly awful terms? In Perry’s skewed view, they’re all cheaters, rapists, murderers and general losers, and even the dead don’t escape his wrath. One woman blames her lousy mothering skills on the lack of a proper inheritance from her late grandfather. The one remotely decent guy in the film is insinuated to be lacking in something because he can’t get his woman pregnant.
Shange’s play was never this downbeat. By the time Devine’s social worker character Juanita wails the famous line “Somebody took all my stuff,” you begin to think the same about what Perry did to Shange.