My mother just called Tyler Perry "brilliant." This is the same woman who once told me that Perry's TBS sitcom House of Payne was "buffcoonery" — some monstrous hybrid of "buffoon" and "coonery." Last summer I took her to see Why Did I Get Married Too? Her response? "I'm glad you paid." She doesn't mince words, my mom.
And according to her, For Colored Girls, which premiered last week, was a triumph. It was a cinematic feat to be celebrated. I almost walked out, like, twice. But this lady, my mother, the first feminist I ever knew, the woman who introduced me to poetry when I was a baby? She loved Perry's adaptation of Ntzoake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Go figure.
For me, that book, which I found on her shelf when I was a kid, is to little brown girls what Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is to little white girls. I'm fiercely protective of it. A little bit snobbish about it. And maybe that's ridiculous. Loosening my grip — even on a loose interpretation that I still think should've been way better — might be necessary. Because sharing is caring, right? So I had a conversation with my mother — who is a poet (the fact that she's unpublished is the world's problem) and who works with victims of domestic violence — about the movie that has black women either up in arms or holding hands in a sister circle.
Me: All right, woman. How did you feel about For Colored Girls? Give me your initial reaction.
Mom: My main reaction is that women need to bring their men. They need to sit at the table together. They need to see the hurt and the pain. I'm really trying to decide if I'm going to take my teen girls [Me: From the literacy program she runs] to see it. It's heavy, but I need to have them see it. If they can watch all this vampire [expletive], then they can see this.
Me: So you liked it? You thought Tyler did a good job translating Shange's work?
Mom: Tyler Perry is brilliant. He's brilliant. The way he was able to adapt the original material into the movie and bring it up-to-date was amazing. AIDS? That wasn't part of the original work. He brought that in and was able to take it in. We really have to let go of our literary expertise and absorb this piece in its place and time. Tyler had to make it digestible in order for it to work. I give that to him.
Me: Really? But what about the art?! What about taking something so classic and ruining it — dumbing it down, even?
Mom: Didn't Alice Walker think the same thing about The Color Purple?
Me: I don't think so. The Color Purple was a good movie!
Mom: According to us! It's hard to release and let go. Like when you were going away to college and I got sick [Me: My mother was hospitalized at the same time I was planning to move across country]. I said, 'Uh-uh. There's no way you're gonna take my baby girl and put her out into the universe without me!' And I went with you and I spoke to every black woman on that campus and let them know the deal [Me: This is very true and very embarrassing]. So I know how hard it is to let go. But you have to.
Me: Some parts of the film were just so ridiculous to me. They were too easy. And Whoopi's character was insane.
Mom: She was insane in the membrane. She's all, "God is great, God is good, God, we thank you for our food," but then she's browbeating both of her daughters to the point where they can't express God's love in themselves. Whoopi's walking around in all this white, and her house is atrocious.
Me: OK, fine, there was some decent dichotomy there. But what resonated with you most about the film? I had the toughest time seeing past all the seams.
Mom: I think the one piece that really stood out for me was Kimberly Elise's story line, the woman whose children were dropped from the window.
Me: I couldn't watch that scene. I closed my eyes until it was over.
Mom: Me too. But it's about more than that. She just sat there in this horrible relationship. She's got these two beautiful kids and a man she has to nurture and stroke. We as women put ourselves into this position where we're carrying the whole mother lode. There's a difference between loving a child and loving a man. Draw the line. And every day she dresses up and walks into an office as a professional woman. She's living a double life. She's living different personalities. The woman should be schizo! And she's not crying on anybody's shoulder.
Me: That is a powerful statement about black women, or any woman with the superwoman complex.
Mom: Right. For me, the movie is about dealing with our pain and the why. It's about the position you put me in that I no longer accept. But you can't just give people the point-blank truth and not give them something to digest it with so that we know where to go from here.
Me: And you got all that from a Tyler Perry movie?
Mom: Girl, yes. But the movie does not help in the healing unless we have some dialogue. Black woman are a force to be reckoned with, but they have to be reckoned with.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.