As a black kid growing up in the 1990s, I was in love with film. I would leave a theater and remember lines: Laurence Fishburne in 1991’s Boyz N the Hood telling his son, “You my son; you’re my problem.” I can recall the look in the eyes of the militants in the film Panther; they knew they were going to die but believed in the rightness of their cause and were committed to keeping the drugs out of the black community. I remember seeing Love Jones in 1997 and realizing what Lauryn Hill meant by “the sweetest thing I’ve ever known/was like a kiss on the collarbone.”
When I saw For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry’s film adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1976 play, it was painfully clear that we’re a long way from the movies of my youth, when black men were depicted as more than rapists or baby killers or degenerates. It almost feels like all of the racial stereotypes that our grandparents grew up with have been internalized and are now infecting our films.
We don’t have to worry about white folks embarrassing us in their movies, because now black people are allowed to get rich committing this kind of cultural genocide. There’s been a shift in black moviemaking, and it’s not for the better.
For Colored Girls is a mixed bag, because any adaptation largely hinges on the filmmaker’s translation. As a result, the film and the play are two very different works. In the play, there are gorgeous poems, such as the one about Toussaint Louverture, who, Shange writes, “waz a blk man, a negro, like my mama say who refused to be a slave.”
It’s moments like these that Tyler Perry keeps out of his film. The character Beau Willie’s story as a war veteran is brought to bear much larger in the play than in the film, which is a travesty. With this character especially, Shange humanized black men and pointed to a historic injustice that had been done to our veterans by the government.
Shange’s play has an all-female cast, but in Perry’s adaptation, the men are present in the film. This not-so-subtle decision makes men the oppositional force in the movie, while in the play, it is the women who are, in their own way, blocking self-actualization.
Our movies didn’t always portray black men in this way. Not too long ago, we saw Will Smith playing a homeless single father determined to care for his son in The Pursuit of Happyness, a book-to-film adaptation directed by Gabriele Muccino, a white man.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the films of Spike Lee — School Daze, Mo’ Betta Blues and Malcolm X — gave us nuanced characters wrestling with the particulars of being black in America. Surely, there are plenty more stories like these to tell, but black directors don’t seem to be interested in them anymore. Has sickness become the new narrative for the black experience?
In For Colored Girls, the black men are largely egregious (rapists, down-low HIV infectors, crazy murderers and so on). While this project is mainly about the liberation of black women and the conversations that they need to have with one another, the men in the film are also a part of that conversation.