What It Feels Like for a Girl: Poem and Polemic in For Colored Girls

Tyler Perry’s film adaption of Ntozake Shange’s theatrical masterpiece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf is a commentary on the boundlessness of black genius, as much as it is a polemic against patriarchy.  The genius is found in the performances of the all-star cast and Shange’s poetry.  A self-proclaimed Black Feminist, the polemic is Shange’s—yes—but as retold here becomes largely Perry’s.

Last weekend I had the privilege of seeing the film with a group of sister friends and it is an experience that I will not soon forget.  The film is Perry’s best work yet and this is a testament to the genius of Shange’s material and the film’s brilliant cast, as much as it is to Perry’s artistic vision. For Colored Girls is examines how black female identity is negotiated, subjugated, represented, co-opted, and often times negated. Told through the interwoven narratives of nine women, the film uses the plays poetic voice to its advantage. Shange’s words drip of the tongues of Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, and Phylicia Rashad, with as much potency and relevancy today as when the stage play debuted in 1975.  Look for Oscar nominations  Newton and Elise.

Based on the narrative thread of his films thus far, Perry is clearly negotiating some issues around black male identity, as much as he is black female identity.  The narrative arc of Perry’s films usually finds a female protagonist bound by an addiction to a man, to a drug, to a lifestyle that finds her losing herself.  The films usually end with the Black woman finding redemption through an act of spiritual transformation—a divine intervention.  With this transformation, she is fully formed and in touch with the God with her.  She is then able to access worldly love with a deserving man.  Tyler has a prototype for his ideal man, he is hard working—and often blue-collar,  he is spiritually in touch, and essentially neutered—void of any overt sexual aggression.

Tyler’s critique of Black men is perhaps even more powerful than his edification of Black women. In this film, they are misogynist, rapist, philanderers, liars, cheats, and decidedly weak.  There is no growth for the men and  no redemption  Accordingly, the films powerful performances are at times subjugated to Perry’s penchant for melodrama—at times it’s not clear if this is Perry’s moment of artistic maturity or a dressed up version of his usual wound picking.  For Colored Girls continues a narrative thread in black dramatic works like “The Color Purple” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” that explore the strange dyad that is black men and black women—a relationship historically plagued by forced separation, gender role reversal, and plainly said pain.

This is not Madea.  It is a film with an artistic voice and cultural merit; it is well-positioned  among other classics in its exploration of the black women’s relationship with each other and the men in their lives. Perry is not Spike Lee (the one who makes good films), Spielberg, or Scorsese. Yet with this film, he addresses issues and concerns that will resonate with colored girls everywhere: a need to find their voice in a world that so often seeks to negate it; the desire to love and be love; and the innate resiliency that makes Black women the survivors we are.

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