I write this having just returned from a special screening here in Philadelphia of the film, “For Colored Girls.” For those who may not know…the movie was written and directed by Tyler Perry and is based on the seminal work of author/artist Ntozake Shange: For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuff.
For me, Shange’s book (and later Broadway play) both shouts in the sunlight and whispers in the darkness all of the beautifully ugly journeys of the women of color that are her main characters. Given my dramatic use of metaphor it is perhaps needless to say that I admire her as a poet and artist. So much so that the off-off-Broadway play Khepera that I co-wrote with my cousin, actress/director Nzinga, borrowed heavily from her choreopoem format. So going into the theatre tonight, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’ve seen all of Tyler Perry’s films and I believe, in spite of my critique of them, they have a place at the artistic table. However, I wondered if it was even possible to effectively translate writings like Shange’s into film.
So let me say this: The acting was phenomenal. These stunning brown and black and beige and tall and wide and short and lean women brought their A game. I respected their performances even more after hearing Kimberly Elise (a star of the film that did a Q&A after the screening) share how cathartic the process was for her and the others; how she still hasn’t been able to loose herself from the character she played.
In terms of directing and cinematography, I thought the film was well done. There were quite a few shots that had a very indie, art house feel to them and I appreciated the stretch Perry made in that area.
Now the writing. It was…alright. Not quite “great”. But certainly well above “It didn’t suck.” I think the challenges Perry faced was one that any screenwriter would have in adapting this kind of literature (poetry is different from novels or memoirs). In order to honor the material…which he definitely did…he was inevitably going to lose the fluidity that viewers are used to. The choppiness in many places are reflective of that. Shange’s book and play are essentially a series of monologues, so again, to stay authentic to the material (which I sensed maybe he tried too much to do), the traditional screenwriting story arc suffers. There is an arc. But it is faint. This, I think, may result in some restlessness in those who just may not be familiar with the original work or who aren’t like me and are just madly, enamored with elegant, poetic words and phrases.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some really powerful, raw, and poignant moments in the film. Moments that will stick with you long after the lights come up. But you will have to wade through some longer less-moving stretches to get there.
All of this being said, I must say that while watching this film I came to an understanding about this movie, Tyler Perry and his body of work. There is more of difference than I ever realized between writing and storytelling – particularly the kind of storytelling that comes out of the African oral tradition. The kind that often makes no literal sense with all of its disorder and exaggeration but yet still can prick your emotions. There is no structure to this kind of storytelling but it moves you just the same. It’s grandma talking about moving from Carolina to Chicago back in ‘39. No neat 3 acts. Inciting incident all in the “wrong” place. But yet, tears still flow. Passions still flame. You still feel it. I think that’s what Perry has tapped into. He doesn’t write in the way that us writers have been taught in our workshops and MFA programs or may have learned through literary reading and discourse. He tells stories. Stories, as in this case, that have been told before. Stories that caused many people in the audience tonight to sob audibly at different points in the film.
I would encourage everyone…colored or not…to put aside whatever skepticisms or reservations you may have about Tyler Perry and go see this film when it releases next weekend. Why? Because it’s really not about him. It’s about the dialogue that I believe will be created around issues in the community that we haven’t seemed to be able to shake even since the 70’s when Shange wrote the poems. AND it’s about the doors that the success of this film will open to those writers who just might be able to better blend the writing and the storytelling.
There is one thing I know for sure. This film, in its imperfections, reminded me of why I do what I do. So that God can use my words to expose humanity’s brokenness, minister to our souls, and hopefully, in spite of the many critics I’m sure I have of my own writing, restore and reconcile us back to Him and each other.
That’s my take.