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.
But even more violently, under Perry's disapproving directorial eye, Nyla is punished for her sexual curiosity. Her beautiful story of sexual awakening becomes merged with the original Lady in Blue's tale of a pre-Roe v. Wade back-alley abortion. The end result is a moralizing sermon against black women's promiscuity and sexual agency, and more subtly against choice itself.
All the pain, without black feminist pleasure.
One has to wonder what For Colored Girls would have looked like if directed by the African-American filmmaker Nzingha Stewart, who wrote the original screenplay, to which Perry later bought the rights. As her sleek black-and-white video for Bilal's "Soul Sista" and her thoughtful short film South Central indicate, Stewart had not only the chops to take on Shange's gravitas but also her graceful rhythms and visual sensuality. But the fact remains that, for the most part, black women filmmakers do not have the requisite "money" or "trust" to tell their own stories (or those of other black women writers) in Hollywood.
Ultimately, Perry's For Colored Girls could reach a larger audience than Shange could ever have imagined the stage and page versions reaching. Much like Lee Daniels' award-winning film Precious, Perry's version stands to usurp the original, not just in popularity but also in political message. Because of this, we need to celebrate Perry's ability to pull out the brilliant and magical performances provided by actresses like Loretta Devine, Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad and revel in his rare commitment to an all-black women's ensemble.
At the same time, we must remain hyper aware that Perry's For Colored Girls does little to dispel the sexual stereotypes and victim blaming of black women in contemporary American politics and popular culture -- especially of those women who have endured sexual assault, domestic violence, infertility and sexual transmitted infections. (Here, I should mention that Perry's new homophobic plot twist -- involving a closeted, bisexual, HIV-positive black man and his ostensibly emasculating wife -- also works against the open and inclusive spirit of Shange's brand of black feminism.)
But in the end, the durability of Shange's play has as much to do with the genius of her prose as it does with the stubbornness of racism and sexism to shape the material conditions of black women's lives. To his credit, Perry used 85 percent of Shange's original poetry in his final script. So even cloaked in his melodramatic conservatism, the potency of her words can't be fully lost.
As hip-hop feminist Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, says, "Shange's play will never become dated. Similar to any other great work, the themes of love, friendship, heartbreak, sexism and the negotiation of desire are timeless for black women. Shange, like Shakespeare, doesn't go out of style for a reason."