Black Feminism, Tyler Perry Style

Why Ntozake Shange's feminist message of gender equality, reproductive justice and sexual liberation has been seriously compromised in the hands of the hit filmmaker.

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Janet Jackson in For Colored Girls (Quantrell Colbert)

Leave it to Tyler Perry, a man best known for playing Madea, a modern-day Mammy, to try to redefine black feminism for the mainstream.

Perry admits that he didn't know much about Ntozake Shange's choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, but that didn't stop him from taking on this black feminist bible nevertheless.

First produced on Broadway in 1976, For Colored Girls was written by Shange during the height of both the black power and feminist movements. Shange's play, much like the 1970s debuts of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland, was a coming-of-age story that uniquely featured the point of view and political experiences of black women.

Breaking long-standing cultural silence on topics such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and abortion in the experimental form of a choreopoem that combined words with movement, Shange created what the New Yorker's Hilton Als once described as a "firebomb of a poem. Through the 'colored girls,' the disenfranchised heard a voice they could recognize, one that combined the trickster spirit of Richard Pryor with a kind of mournful blues."

But the play's boldness was not simply in its diagnoses of black women's blues but in its unwavering belief that black feminism was a viable remedy for those blues. Soyica Diggs Colbert, a scholar of African-American theater at Dartmouth College, says that the play's ultimate message was always one of black freedom.

"Through dancing, singing and coming together," Dr. Colbert notes, "or what the play describes as 'a layin on of hands,' the women developed rites that begin to repair the damage caused by domestic and sexual violence. No easy resolution, but a triumphant one nonetheless."

In the hands of Perry, one of Hollywood's most conservative black evangelical voices, Shange's feminist message of gender equality, reproductive justice and sexual liberation has been seriously compromised.

Perry's brand of female empowerment has always been more about his ability to tell black women's stories (even, as in the case of Madea, when the women aren't real) than, as Courtney Young writes for the Nation, "revolutionizing the marginalized way that black womanhood has been portrayed in popular culture." By trafficking in old stereotypes of the asexual, black Mammy, as in Madea -- or newer stereotypes like the castrating yet professionally ambitious black woman, like the character Jo (played by Janet Jackson) that he adds to For Colored Girls -- Perry's vision primarily reproduces rather than reduces negative representations of black women on-screen.

By contrast, Shange literally sought to diversify the representations of black women -- thus the seven colored girls as narrator -- as well as provide her audience with a certain brand of black feminism: cosmopolitan, sexual, collaborative and freeing. But Perry's For Colored Girls rewrites many of Shange's most powerful scenes, replacing sexual autonomy with moral approbation, substituting female resistance with victim blaming.

This dichotomy is especially acute in the film's adaptation of the Lady in Yellow monologue. In the play, she delivers a lush monologue about her past experience of cruising, dancing and losing her virginity on graduation night. In the film, these same words are now recited by a teenage girl, Nyla (Tessa Thompson), whose bold act of sexual possession is eventually mocked by her mother, Alice (a new character introduced by Perry and played by Whoopi Goldberg).