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).
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."
Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.