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Can Tyler Perry's 'For Colored Girls' Resurrect BAM?

Image from an A+E Theatre production.

Film adaptations from black masterpieces -- and the Chitlin Circuit -- are rejuvenating America's Black Arts Movement.

When it was announced that Tyler Perry would direct the screen version of Ntozake Shange's seminal black womanist work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, there was a collective moan of pain from black women all over America. Though I feel their pain, some of the sentiment's expressed over the blogosphere were sadly lacking in any form of analysis that connected the dots between the Black Arts Movement which gave life to Shange's work, and the so-called Chitlin Circuit which spawned Tyler Perry. Instead, many of these critics chose to be mean-spirited and question Perry's worthiness of the task. For instance, on TheRoot.com, Thembi Ford had the following to say:

Not only will he produce and direct the upcoming film version, the King of Coonery will also write the adaptation of what may be the most important work about black female identity ever. Ask any black woman, especially the artsy/moodyself-aware type, about For Colored Girls… and she will respond with a wistful look and fond memories. I was Lady in Blue in a high-school production and have told more than one sorry dude, “insteada being sorry all the time, try being yourself,” quoting the Lady in Red (but playing it off like I came up with it on my own). This is classic material, and now we can expect the intentionally stripped-down aesthetic of Shange’s work to be replaced by style choices that only a closeted gay man could make.

Meanwhile, Monica Jackson chimed in with some choice words:

I’m also scared the Tyler Perry is going to fuck up our movie. To this date he has shown no shaded literary nuances in his stereotypical portrayals of traditional and formulaic black women.

But are white folks (the ones who make the decisions and control the purse strings) just trying to give us what we want? We spend tons of money on Tyler Perry. He is undoubtedly what some black folks want. What the people who decide what’s labeled as the black brand of entertainment don’t seem to understand is that some, even most, black folk aren’t all black folk. They only get dollar signs. Don’t get me wrong. I think Tyler Perry has done wonderful things in creating his brand and hiring black actors, but I wish he’d stick to that brand and not mess with stuff that really matters to a certain sort of black woman.

There are many more perspectives similar to those of Jackson and Ford throughout the blogosphere, unfortunately, the problem with these perspectives is that they lack the nuances that they accuse Perry of lacking. Instead of Perry directing the film version, I've heard this group of critics throw out names like Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Nzinga Stewart(who actually is writing the screenplay). The thought being that these directors have the creative chops to do a classic piece like For Colored Girls justice -- while Perry doesn't.

That's a fair point. Most of Perry's work to date has been entertaining but far from memorable. However as my friend, author Scott Poulson-Bryant pointed out to me, some of Hollywood's finest auteurs worked on some of America's most dubious television shows. For instance, Bob Rafaelson created The Monkees, James L. Brooks used to write for My Mother the Car, Robert Towne used to write for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Robert Altman used to write for Bonanza.

"Do you think Tyler Perry has a Nashville or a Five Easy Pieces or a Terms of Endearment or a Chintaown lurking somewhere inside him? And if so, when do you think we might see it?" Poulson-Bryant mused.

Poulson-Bryant's humor not withstanding, it's certainly true that For Colored Girls is a classic and perhaps above Perry's current output, but it's equally true that it's a highly unconventional work that would be challenging for virtually any director to adapt to the big screen. We know coming in that the film version won't exactly be the stage version, no matter who the director may be.

The black women critics also complain that Perry's involvement is strictly a money play. Let's not get it twisted, Hollywood deals in mass audiences. Concessions are made in the hopes that revenues are maximized.

For those that think this is a bad thing, then the day Shange optioned her play to a film producer was the day the work was compromised and that was the day that they should have complained -- not now. I'm sure Lemmons, Lee, and Prince-Bythewood could make versions of For Colored Girls worth seeing, but I doubt they would have the marketing muscle of Perry.

Perry's involvement may give some folks trepidation about the quality of the movie, but it almost guarantees that tens of thousands more copies of Shange's original script published by Scribner will be sold. Bottom line, more people will be exposed to the original work than Shange could have dreamed, when she wrote it.

Granted there have been complaints about Perry's work, such as University of Southern California's race and popular culture professor Todd Boyd's statement that, "Minstrel shows are probably more progressive than Tyler Perry's representation", or thedailyvoice.com's Clay Cane's assertion that, "I am not for representation at any costs, especially when Perry relies on the most common denominator of stereotypes". ("Movie Review: Meet The Browns", 21 March 2008)

The sad truth is that for all of Perrry's "stereotypes" his movies are extremely popular with black audiences, yet when so-called "serious" black movies are made, black people don't exactly show up in droves. I offer Lemmons' Talk to Me and Lee's Miracle at St. Anna as exhibits A & B.

Still, I'm hopeful that there is a viable market for the film adaptations of black masterpieces and I find the idea of the most commercially successful playwright of the so-called Chitlin Circuit adapting the most commercially successful playwright of the Black Arts Movement a profound one. These are the two most well known black theatrical "movements" in black cultural history. Their potential pairing deserves serious examination.

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