Nearly 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson held a screening of D. W. Griffin’s fascinatingly racist masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation (1915). It was the first film to be seen at The White House. Probably what’s more fascinating is that a century later African Americans are still struggling to find their stories and experiences in mainstream cinema. Enter Tyler Perry.
Perry knows his audience and, with every film, he is able to deliver with enough universal appeal to meet them.
Given his history with gospel plays and comedy, I found it quite ambitious for him to take on Ntozake Shange’s now classic play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuff. During feminism’s heyday, the play helped afro-picking and fist-pumping women open up more about their experiences in the late 70’s; the movie is no different for today’s audiences.
In a recent discussion about womanhood, a pastoral counselor here in the city, Dr. Janice Hodge, talked with me about the four parts of “the lady,” as she refers to her. They are as follows: 1) the Madonna who offers the spiritual compass and provides the moral standard, if you will, for herself and her household; 2) the Mother who nurtures; 3) the Courtesan is the sexual and passionate lover of herself and others; and, finally, 4) the Amazon who fights and is the strength of her family.
For Colored Girls (FCG) introduces us to all four parts of the woman. In the movie and play these characters are represented by a color but for the purposes of this blog, I choose to refer to them by the above titles.
We meet Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) who is the Madonna; Crystal (Kimberly Elise), the Mother; Tangie (Thandie Newton), the Courtesan, and Jo (Janet Jackson), the Amazon. The other ladies in the film either straddle between multiple roles or don’t fit into any particular role. The importance in discovering these distinct personalities in the characters is to also discover the importance of the film and the original play. FCG is the story of one woman wrapped into multiple characters. It is a story about you; it’s about me; it’s about women, particularly Black women.
That said, while there’s much to criticize about the film—one being Perry’s common mistake of going off the dramatic deep end and overwhelming us—there are more important things to discuss, such as what is to be appreciated in FCG:
She is all-seeing and all-knowing; she is both a savior and vilified; she is righteous with a sinful past; she is the film’s messianic figure. Gilda, the Madonna of the movie, was one of the reasons this film is worth seeing.
The nosey neighbor from the top floor interfaced with nearly every woman in the film and had something valuable to contribute to each of their lives. She spoke out of her wisdom and she spoke truthfully. She made no apologies for who she was. She embodied both conventional and unconventional forms of love. When the angry and annoyed, Tangie barked at her, “You don’t know me!” Gilda responded with, “I know you; I was you.” When I think about how accomplished of an actor Phylicia Rashad is and was in this film (the best performance in the movie, Thandie Newton, a close second), I understood how appropriate it was to make her the savior of FCG.
A scene favorite of mine was between Gilda and Crystal, The Mother. Crystal witnesses a horrific event committed at the hands of her boyfriend, an alcoholic war vet suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, Beau Willie (Michael Ealy). The omnipresent Gilda shows up during the aftermath. Sinking into a hole of severe depression and on the verge of a mental break, Crystal is ready to seek revenge for the innocent ones. But she and moviegoers are taken by surprise when Gilda’s soft and loving hand turns firm and commands Crystal to take responsibility for her part—an unconventional and shocking response to someone who has just suffered a great loss. But the truth presented in the film was that Crystal had witnessed and been the recipient of Beau Willie’s violence for years—violence she knew others had suffered as well.
Much like the Lord, Gilda reminds us that sometimes we can be our own worst enemies; that sometimes bad things happen because we allow them. I ponder that fact every time I’m asked the ever popular question, “If God is so good, why does he allow bad things to happen?” While it’s a complicated question to answer—a question that most times has no human answer, particularly when it comes to natural disasters (like recent events in Haiti)—there are some instances when most of us are afraid to admit our role in our own personal disasters. As Gilda did for Crystal, God’s tough and, perhaps, unconventional love not only comforts us and gently coaxes us to eat in times of despair but also opens the curtains, shines the bright light of truth and demands us to take responsibility for our actions.
Among the other story lines I appreciated in For Colored Girls was between Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) and Bill (Khalil Kain). Thank you Tyler Perry and Ntgontze Shange for being among the few to effectively paint a picture of date rape for women of color! While I was sitting in the dark theater watching this disturbing scene (one among the few scenes artfully cut between juxtaposed images and action sequences), a light bulb came on. “So that’s what date rape looks like,” I said to myself.
I’ve certainly heard the term date rape before and was pretty confident that I knew the text book definition of it enough to at least have an intellectual discussion about it. However, I am now convinced that it’s one thing to know the definition of date rape, it’s another thing to witness it, and it’s a whole other thing to experience it.
The power of film is that by the medium visually connecting with its audience, it delivers a message. The powerful message in this particular scene? Date rape can result from something as unassuming as a coworker showing himself to be the “perfect gentleman” after the first date.
The scene not only helped me to identify date rape but I’m sure light bulbs were blinking above other Black women who saw the film. In my 32 years, I cannot recall ever hearing the term “date rape” among my Black girlfriends and family members, yet we all know it’s a problem in our community, one that goes widely unreported. A problem that is complicated by the fact that we don’t even realize that we’ve experienced date rape due to the taboos and lies that have long obscured the truth in our community. Possibly since slavery.
For these reasons Hollywood remains insufficient for me. It’s certainly not enough for Black women. It’s coming up short for other women of color too. Over the years I came close to buying into the propaganda studios touted. Mainstream films which included women like Crystal, Yasmine, and victims of the down-low like, Jo wouldn’t gross significant box-office numbers. We heard that super-talented Black actresses like Noni Rose and Newton were less seen on the big screen than the Anne Hathaways and Sarah Jessica Parkers because no one wrote parts for them.
Well, Tyler Perry has certainly exposed what is true when it comes to Hollywood’s deficiencies. FCG reminds me of the reasons Perry is the success he is today. He has identified and targeted part of the gaping hole in Hollywood. He tells stories that people of color want and need to see, proving once more that history and karma do, indeed, make a beautiful union.
A lot has happened between that first screening at the White House and FCG. They say history and karma have a splendid way of coming together. First Lady Michelle Obama recently held a private screening of FCG at the White House with 50 of her girlfriends. I think that’s history and karma.
So, tell me, is Hollywood enough for you?