The new film by Tyler Perry titled For Colored Girls Only, released in November of 2010 is the latest edition of a series of films produced by Tyler Perry Studios. The movie is based on a book For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf written in the 1970’s by author Ntozake Shange. The book is composed of 20 poems detailing scenarios of African American women. Originally performed as a stage play, these series of poems detail the lives of African American women whose stories have proved to be of relevance today. Tyler Perry, perhaps inspired by the legacy of Ntozake Shange, directed the first feature film inspired by the book. Perry, whose title is a shortened version of the original title, has received great praise and criticism for the film.
One thing that differentiates this work from the other films of Perry including Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea Goes to Jail is that this film was not solely written by Perry. Again, this film in essence captures some of the poems written in Shange’s book and therefore serves as the basis for not only the story plot but also much of the dialogue. The influences of these poems are reenacted via monologues by the films seven main female characters. Although the book is composed of 20 poems, Perry wove in many of the salient poems, and arguably the most dramatic or sensational, into the feature film. This does however relieve Perry from much of the criticism given to his other films; he was in actuality bringing to the big screen the works of a well known and respected African American female author.
The selection of this book turned movie brings into question Perry’s motivation for creating For Colored Girls Only. With an audience that is primarily African American and arguably female, Perry must have anticipated the success this film would offer. Additionally, one could argue that this film speaks to the types of stories already present in many of Perry’s films. Perry has been criticized for creating stories that emasculate African American men, while glorifying the power of resilience and strength of African American women. Shange, clearly unaware of the characters in Perry’s films, his work was produced much later than her own, may not be focused on the role of men in her poems however once taken into production of Perry men indeed become an integral player in the stories of the main characters.
This point is better described by the addition of male characters into the film. One male, for instance, is the husband of a career woman who is disconnected from the lives of others living around her and although wealthy in money and acclaim appears to be lacking in the elements of her life she wants most- love and companionship. The story of this female character in Shange’s book did not incorporate the type of husband Perry created in the film. Incorporating Perry’s vision, the husband reveals himself to be a “down-low” or secret homosexual male. His devious behaviors caused him to contract HIV that was unknowingly transmitted to his wife. Viewers who have never read the book but who may be familiar with the time in which the book was written could surmise that this type of lifestyle was not explored with the same fever in 1970’s as opposed to current dialogue encouraged by the creation of such books as Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America by Keith Boykin in 2005 and On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men Who Sleep with Men by J.L. King released in 2007.
The addition of this character could arguably encourage much criticism by those who were other-wised satisfied by Perry’s interpretation of Shange’s work. Many of the conversations that I have engaged in after viewing the film, all point to the addition of this character and conclude that Perry in some way had to “put his two cents into the movie”. In many ways this “down low” African American male represents a reality of African American culture, as described in the works of both Boykin (2005) and King (2007). However, this has become an element of African American communities that incites a fear and mistrust of African American males. The deception and untrustworthiness of the character does play into overarching stereotypes of African American males. Compiled with the other male characters, the ‘down low’ male produces a silent dialogue in which African American women and other consumers assume that black males cannot be reconciled into being loving, healthy men capable of sustaining genuine relationships with women. Two particular stories of the additional male characters that stuck out to me when viewing the film was one in which a woman was raped by a male that she trusted and another that portrayed the life of a battered woman whose partner eventually killed their two children by throwing them out of a window!
If the stories and poems written by Shange almost 30 years ago were not filled enough with the hardships of African American women who often suffered by males both black and white, Perry compiles these hardships with his addition of a “down low” husband who not only cheats on his wife with men and spends large amounts of her money but ultimately infects his loyal wife with HIV/AIDS. Perry once again succeeds in representing African American men particularly as highly dysfunctional and volatile towards the African American woman and family.
Perry should be praised for reviving a classic work produced by a famous African American female author who has now become a house hold name to another generation that may otherwise have never been exposed to her beautiful collection of poetry. The praise however should not go without the criticism that Perry has found yet again a way in which the African American male and female are portrayed in sensationalized versions of dysfunction and stereotypical portrayals of African American men. To date, Perry has yet to produce a film in which these stereotypes are not reinforce, leaving the audience visually satisfied but wondering if functional marriages, or loving African American couples will ever take center stage in a Tyler Perry film.