"This is a far cry from Madea," Barbara Walters said matter-of-factly on last Friday's episode of The View — and Tyler Perry agreed. Sitting down with the show's co-hosts, the writer-director-producer-actor explained his initial fear in adapting Ntozake Shange's legendary For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf from 64 pages of poetry to the feature-length film that premieres Nov. 5.
"I just didn't want to ruin it," explained Perry, whose filmography is heavily based on the hot-grits-wielding slapstick of Madea, the 75-year-old grandmother he plays in drag. "So I wanted to take my time. … [For Colored Girls] haunted me. I didn't choose it; it chose me." According to Perry, View co-host Whoopi Goldberg tried to tap him for the Broadway revival of Shange's work that Goldberg was slated to produce in 2008. Then "somebody else" called Perry a few years later and asked if he was interested in the movie, and he said "no."
"And then it came back again," Perry continued, "and when something is coming back to you that many times, it is for you. So I had to face my fears and just jump into it."
But another director had already taken that leap. Lionsgate, the company distributing the film, announced in March 2009 that music-video director Nzingha Stewart was spearheading the project. Seven months later it was announced that Perry, whose own production company, 34 Street Films, has a distribution deal with Lionsgate, would be writing and directing For Colored Girls.
In July, Stewart told the Atlanta Post that she was involved in "the initial childbirth" of the film. "I talked to the author, optioned the rights and wrote a draft script," she said. "Tyler Perry is one of those directors who finds his ways into the project by doing everything in the project, writing, producing, directing and playing in it."
Instead of writing and directing, Stewart is now listed as an executive producer for the movie. For her part, Stewart, who got her start directing videos for artists such as Jay-Z and Common, told the film blog Shadow and Act that she is happy the project will be in theaters. "It's a beautiful work that deserves to be supported." She took the high road when discussing her original adaptation, which she said Shange supported, in relation to Perry's: "It's probably better for me not to talk about my version of the script because I don't want it to take away from the version that is being produced now."
Thus far, major movie critics have found Perry's version lacking — to say the least. According to the industry bible Variety, "It's not Precious, but For Colored Girls marks an advance for Tyler Perry, as well as a big step back. … Though the text of the playwright's most affecting poems is virtually intact, Perry has unmistakably wrestled Girls into the same soap-opera mold of his earlier pics, connecting the passionate testimonials with clichéd characterizations and two-bit psychoanalysis."
The Hollywood Reporter called the film "hackneyed" and a "hoary melodrama." Still, both reviews noted that the film does spotlight some great performances by Macy Gray, Phylicia Rashad, Kimberly Elise and Anika Noni Rose.
On Friday's episode of The View, Goldberg, who appears in the film as Alice, a woman she described as "crazy and scary and insanely sad," credited the great performances in the film to Perry's directing. "A good director sort of pats you on the butt and goes, 'Go ahead, go ahead,' and that's what you did."
For Colored Girls features heavily in The View's signature chatter this week. On Monday, For Colored Girls co-stars Janet Jackson and Loretta Devine joined the ladies on the couch. On Wednesday it's Thandie Newton and Tessa Thompson's turn. Then, on Friday, actresses Kerry Washington and Kimberly Elise will stop by the show to talk. Coincidentally, the film's tagline is "Many voices. One poem." Thus far, that's an apt description of its own birth. Out of many voices — from Shange's to Stewart's to Perry's — has come one movie.