Context explains colored folks’ reactions to “For Colored Girls”

Tyler Perry’s latest film, “For Colored Girls,” is a case study of the cliché, “Context is king.”  In the context of the battle of the sexes, it visually and repeatedly assaults men with the hatred, domination and abuse of women, thereby rendering useless men’s general unwillingness to confront misogyny.  It is therefore offensive to most men who have seen it.

In the context of Perry’s body of work and in the heat of a culture war between black men and black women that various media outlets and celebrities are instigating and neglecting to resolve in order to continue to milk the stereotype of the strong, independent, lonely black woman who, after a series of bad experiences, doesn’t need a man, the film is indeed yet another referendum against black men.

However, in the context of an adaptation of a choreopoem, the movie is a brave (or some might say arrogant) but flawed attempt to make an Obie Award-winning, revolutionary work of theater suitable for the silver screen and for an audience largely unfamiliar with the original work.

The original context is that of Ntozake Shange, a young black female writer living in the Bay Area in the early 1970s and feeling empowered and encouraged by Toni Morrison’s debut novel, “The Bluest Eye,” and by the reprinting of Zora Neale Hurston’s, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”  It is that of a storyteller and dancer finding new forms of self-expression and wanting to share, as she described earlier this month in The New Yorker, “the long-untold stories” she was hearing from women of all colors.

During the first decade after the Civil Rights Era, during the heightening of the Feminist Movement and during a renaissance of black female literature, Shange wrote a play that combined spoken word, dance and music.  “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” has no plot, and although the last vignette in the version that ran on Broadway and that was published as a book is the most horrific story of all the vignettes (Lady in Red watches her boyfriend drop their children from their apartment window), the play is not linear.  It’s 20 or so poems/stories told by seven different women who represent hundreds of women whose one common denominator is that they are women of color.  Each story is its own, and each colored woman’s first monologue or line isn’t necessarily connected to anything else she says in the remainder of the play.

For example, Lady in Blue’s first monologue is about leaving her neighborhood to dance Latin dances with Puerto Ricans.  After two other ladies perform two poems about heartbreak, love and dance, Lady in Blue splits lines of the poem about date rape among herself, Lady in Purple and Lady in Red.  Lady in Blue moves—and I mean moves literally, as the original play is a choreopoem—on to a story about abortion while Lady in Purple tells the audience of an exotic woman in a quadroon ball as Lady in Green dances an interpretation of the words.

Now imagine adapting that—those 20 or so vignettes connected by color and choreography—into an event-driven, linear storyline with witty dialogue.  Now tell that story within two hours.  Put that story into a medium that works best with diverse cinematography, and that requires action capable of holding the attention of an audience accustomed to computer-generated special effects.

Add a commitment to be as true as possible to the original work, and you have a script that violates every rule you learn in film school, even the ones that steer filmmakers toward avant garde, independent productions.  There’s more than one hero and more than one villain.  The writer doesn’t fight for the villains’ causes; he writes as if the villains are clearly and unequivocally wrong, making the villains one-dimensional and omitting their redeeming qualities.  There’s no time to explore the villains’ story, just as there’s no time to explore the multiple protagonists’ stories.  The protagonists want nothing, and when characters want nothing, audiences simply watch stuff happen to the characters.  And in this movie, it’s bad stuff.  Really bad stuff.  That satisfying moment in which the protagonist overcomes what we thought was imminent death or unconquerable defeat never arrives.  We may enjoy powerful performances, crisp editing and pretty cinematography along the way—and in this case, we even get both Perry’s on-the-nose dialogue and Shange’s lyrical verse—but nothing drives the story and there is no resolution.

So, we leave the movie theater polarized, the movie’s unresolved issues carried from the screen, to our cars, to the media, to the blogosphere.  Would Perry have helped black women and black men leave the movie theater united if he had followed the rules of cinematic storytelling?  Somewhat.  It would be nice to know why Frank keeps going back to that other woman, what happened in Joann’s previous marriage to bring on her emasculating wife persona and just what kind of torment Carl has endured throughout a life lived in denial.

But despite the above truths from formal film school education, I doubt that perfect storytelling of the rest of the issues would bring black unity.  We’re already good at justifying intimate partner abuse (think Rhianna and Chris Brown) and sexual assault (think R. Kelly) and at covering up incest.  The cause of a soldier’s PTSD, the exploration into what makes a rapist tick, or the life of a man who molests his daughter and granddaughter can make great stories that generate Oscar buzz (think Charlize Theron in Monster or Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman), but they also can keep the onus on the victims, and in the context of gender and black culture wars, it’s the victims’ stories that need to be told.

What were the reactions to the play in 1976? They may sound familiar…

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