For Colored Girls: Tyler Perry’s Invitation to Lament

No bad news
No bad news
Don’t you ever bring me no bad news
‘Cause I’ll make you an offer, child
That you cannot refuse
So don’t nobody bring me no bad news

Those are the lyrics sung by Mabel King in her role as Evillene in The Wiz, the all-Black adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The irony, of course, is that Evillene (the wicked witch of whom kids were actually afraid) was the epitome of bad news. So is it strange, then, that this song leaped into my head when I thought about the resistance of some Black men, particularly Black male pastors, toward seeing Tyler Perry’s latest film, For Colored Girls?

Just to avoid misunderstanding, I am not labeling Black men or Black male pastors as the epitome of bad news for Black women (although some folks might, in the case of the latter). And I confess that I have leveled a fair share of criticism at Tyler Perry for his portrayals of African American women and African American romantic relationships. Earlier this year, in a post about Why Did I Get Married Too?, I wrote:

The essence of both Why Did I Get Married? films remains the same: Black romantic relationships are screwed up because: (1) there are a lot of no-count black men out there (i.e., the abusers, cheaters, etc.); and (2) black women are ball-busting bitches who don’t know how to appreciate a good thing when they find it.

Of course, I’m not alone in my criticism. Tyler Perry is to the blogosphere what George W. Bush was to late-night comedians. He provides plenty of fuel for the self-righteous indignation of…well, just about everybody.

As a teenager, I cut my womanist/feminist teeth on Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf. I’ve never seen the Broadway production, but the PBS film adaptation starring Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard (as well as Shange herself) occupies a prominent place in my DVD collection. So I was more than skeptical when I learned that Perry had acquired the rights to Shange’s work and would be writing, directing, and producing it. Yet I also remained hopeful that he would somehow avoid butchering Shange’s elegant and heart-wrenching treatise on the lives and loves, struggles and triumphs of African American women. I wanted and needed Perry to do well with this film. And as the film’s release date neared and some positive reviews came pouring in, I became even more hopeful.

Since the film’s release, the feminist blogosphere has been afire with the criticisms of Perry’s adaptation, which has been labeled as a weak and undeserving imitation of Shange’s masterpiece. Other critics (read “probably White critics unfamiliar with Shange’s work”) have excoriated the film for its jumpy quality and lack of a cohesive storyline. Quite frankly, I disagree with all of them. Shange’s work is a highly artistic, complex piece that defies easy categorization. Perry took a feminist choreopoem aimed at a 1970s theater audience and produced a 2010 film that was relevant, accessible, and profitable. That’s not an easy undertaking. But he did it. And in my opinion, he did it well.

I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed the film. I went to see it with my colleague and fellow womanist theologian, Dr. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. And I expected that we’d leave the film with a listful of complaints. Instead, we both walked out saying, “That was great!” But my delight met with another source of resistance: the individual boycotts of African American men who refused to see the film because of its assumed depictions of African American men as predators.

I heard the protests most frequently among male students and colleagues at the historically Black Baptist seminary at which I teach. At some level, I understand. After all, I am an African American woman, member of a racial-gender group whose images are routinely assassinated on the large and small screens. These days, a Black actress can hardly buy a job. But I digress…

I found a few ironies in the refusal of Black men who were leaders in the Christian church to watch the film. First, I doubt that many (any?) of them were basing their protest upon a careful reading of the original work. They were objecting to what they had “heard” about the film, not upon any concrete data. Second, it was the same stance which was articulated against The Color Purple in the 1980s and Waiting to Exhale in the 1990s. It seems that whenever a Black female writer’s narrative of Black women’s pain is adapted for film, some brothers turn into Evillene, mad at the possibility that someone might bring them some bad news. And as a consequence, the struggles of Black women’s lives are silenced behind a wall of Black male denial. “Don’t make brothers look bad” becomes a weapon of silence waged against African American women by Black patriarchy.

In the case of For Colored Girls, this is especially disheartening. For Colored Girls is an invitation into lament. It shatters the myth that Black women have transcended the burden of racism and provides a glimpse of the gendered forms of oppression that uniquely and/or disproportionately impact Black women in America: rape, incest, domestic violence, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, lack of social support, and problems in relationships of all kinds. In contrast to his prior work, Perry makes no attempt to wrap everything up in a nice, neat little bow at the end. The characters’ lives and pain are unresolved. There is no prince in shining armor coming to save the day. There is no quick fix. As an audience, we are simply invited to sit alongside these women (as well as the men) and to hear their stories for two hours. To cry with them, to hold them in our hearts, to see ourselves in them, and to see them in ourselves and in the women we know.

The church could learn a valuable lesson from that. Perry’s characters may be imagined, but they are also real. And they are in the church, sitting in the pews every Sunday morning, outfit tight and hair and makeup just right. They go to church, at least in part, hoping to receive a balm for their wounds, but also terrified of letting anyone see just how wounded they are. Perhaps they think that no one cares. Or maybe they don’t want to be the ones to bring their pastors “no bad news.”

Brothers – get your heads out of the sand. Go see the film. And if you’re a pastor or minister, take a few women with you. And after the film, sit with them for a while. Hear their stories. Cry with them. Hold them in your hearts. See yourself in them and see them in the women that you love. Don’t try to fix it. Don’t let your black male ego raise its defenses. Just lament.

Another Look at Tyler Perry

Yesterday I went to see Tyler Perry’s new film, Why Did I Get Married Too?. Of course, I didn’t go to see it purely for entertainment’s sake. Since he debuted on the major film circuit a few years ago, Perry has tended to elicit one of two responses from black viewers: rabid loyalty or seething hatred. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. To date, I have seen nearly all of Perry’s films, one of his stage plays, and even a few of his filmed stage productions. Granted, Perry’s work is not likely to garner an Oscar nod anytime soon, but it’s always entertaining. The play that I saw, What Goes On In the Dark, was the best laugh I’ve had at a live show since Cedric the Entertainer’s set during The Kings of Comedy performance in Miami over ten years ago.

I’ll pass on the television shows though. I tried to watch The House of Payne, but its oversimplified story lines, clichés, and overacting (reminiscent of the SNL skit, “The Overacting Negro Ensemble”) became painful.

Why Did I Get Married Too? is vintage Perry. Once again, he uses his “everything but the kitchen sink” approach – mixing slapstick, romantic comedy, and drama with a few gratuitous hot body shots (even Janet Jackson’s cleavage, which was uncharacteristically demure in the original, makes quite a few appearances). The film’s many plot lines include divorce, domestic violence, adultery, grief, financial hardship – in sum, nearly every possible catastrophe that could happen. With this film, Perry seems to be taking himself a little too seriously; he went to an epic length of 2-1/2 hours, a good 45 minutes too long.

The overall verdict? It was…entertaining. I laughed, sometimes in spite of myself. And as I walked out of the theatre, I thought, “Maybe I should just leave Tyler Perry alone and not write about this one.” Did I mention that Perry inspires a sort of rabid loyalty? Writing anything negative about him causes a knee-jerk reaction among his fans, who immediately accuse the critic of being an intellectual elitist snob who clearly doesn’t understand his work and therefore has no business writing about it.

The irony is that I often receive the opposite reaction when I ask students in my undergraduate classes to watch and write about one of his films. More than one student has responded, “You want us to do what?! What are we supposed to learn from that? His movies are stupid.” Even those students who secretly enjoy Perry’s movies question the idea that there could be anything worth intellectual engagement within them.

The last time that I wrote about Tyler Perry, I critiqued his treatment of women’s roles, which have a pretty heavy patriarchal lens. Perry’s films are usually part-entertainment and part-morality play. Why Did I Get Married Too? doesn’t have the preachiness of his earlier work and it’s easy to assume that the film has no message. But it does. And it’s an important one.

The essence of both Why Did I Get Married? films remains the same: Black romantic relationships are screwed up because: (1) there are a lot of no-count black men out there (i.e., the abusers, cheaters, etc.); and (2) black women are ball-busting bitches who don’t know how to appreciate a good thing when they find it. Now, here’s where you need to read carefully before you press the comment link: Perry does not paint all black men and women in this light. In this series, Mike (played by Richard T. Jones) clearly represents the former, while the rest of the men portray the latter. Even Marcus (played by Michael Jai White) seems to have reformed his philandering ways in this one.

The women, on the other hand, almost universally fall in the category of too strong for their own good. Angela, Marcus’ wife as played by Tasha Smith, is still a twenty-first century depiction of the Sapphire stereotype – the loud, abrasive black woman who loves to belittle black men. Patricia (portrayed by Jackson) is classic Strong Black Woman – a repressed psychotherapist who spends all of her time fixing other people while her own life is in shambles. As for Diane and Sheila, the characters played by Sharon Leal and Jill Scott, respectively…well, I don’t want to give the movie away.

Whether it’s the Why Did I Get Married? or Madea films, Tyler Perry’s works are a form of social commentary. The question is, what kind of comment is he making? Is Perry simply depicting what is? Or is he pointing to what ought to be? Those of us who critique Perry usually assume that he’s doing one or the other, oftentimes both. But I think there’s another way to look at Perry. His art (and yes, I believe it is artistic) exposes what many people believe to be true about the state of African American relationships. Simply put, he’s just depicting what many African American men and women believe to be true about black relationships – that black men are dogs and black women have too much baggage.

Perry’s meteoric rise to success is evidence that he’s a genius as a businessman. He knows how to tap into the psyche of his audience and to give them what they want to see. So the question is not why he keeps playing the same tired old story, but why we as African Americans keep believing that story and what impact it has on our lives.

Black Movies and the Myth of Relational Violence

During the media frenzy over the alleged incident of domestic violence between singers Chris Brown and Rihanna, I remained silent. Silent, but observant. I listened to the countless number of citizens who called into black radio stations to cast their pronouncement of guilt or innocence. I watched Oprah, Phil, and Tyra as they launched their special (and much-hyped) episodes about teen dating violence. I read the articles, commentaries, and blogs about patriarchy, victim’s rights, and the potential impact on the careers of these two talented artists. And in the midst of listening, watching, and reading, I noticed a screaming silence. No one was talking about the glorification of relational violence in black film and how it might have impacted those two young people or the public dissection of their lives.

In fact, with the exception of Kevin Powell, who was given very limited talk-time on one of Oprah’s episode, no one was talking about the American fascination with violence at all. Just take a look at the slate of movies lined up to hit theatres in this year’s blockbuster season: Wolverine, Terminator Salvation, Transformers, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (this series stopped being appropriate for children by about book two). Sure, there are lots of other good, non-violent films coming out too, but many of them won’t do nearly as well as those about aggression, violence, and death.

But as far as it relates to black film, I’m talking about a different, more insidious type of violence. I’m talking about relational violence – physical aggression between two or more people who are linked together by kinship, friendship, or romantic intimacy, that is, spouses, romantic partners, parents and children, siblings, etc.

In my undergraduate class on black love, I require my students to watch a series of black popular movies that deal with romantic relationships. Our selections over the past two years have included Baby Boy, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Claudine, Love Jones, Jungle Fever, The Color Purple, Something New, Jason’s Lyric, Waiting to Exhale, and Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?. And after two years of watching and re-watching these films, I realized that very many of them contain scenes of explicit relational violence.

In some cases, this might be expected. After all, abuse – and liberation from it – is a central theme in The Color Purple. And Jason’s Lyric and Baby Boy are dramas in which young couples try to form and maintain intimate relationships in the midst of violent, chaotic environments. But relational violence is often woven into films in which it really doesn’t seem to be needed.

Take, for example, This Christmas. There aren’t many holiday movies about African American families, so I was happy to see this one starring Loretta Devine, Delroy Lindo, Regina King, and ironically, Chris Brown. I didn’t expect it to be Oscar-worthy; after all, it’s a Christmas movie, a genre which usually includes a fair bit of cheesiness, contrived drama, and overly simplistic themes. But Christmas movies also tend to be heart-warming and family-oriented. And I expected no less of This Christmas.

What I did not expect was a scene of graphic, premeditated domestic violence. The eldest daughter in the Whitfield family (played by Sharon Neal) drenches the bathroom floor with baby oil and assaults her husband with a leather belt as he steps out of the shower. Wearing nothing but a towel, he is defenseless against the attack as he falls and slides on the oil-slicked floor. Apparently, the beating is supposed to be legitimated by the husband’s infidelity (and in general, being a jerk).

That’s the scary part about the depiction of relational violence in black film – in some ways, it is always seen as being legitimate. Over and over again, black filmmakers pay homage to what theologian Walter Wink names as the “myth of redemptive violence” – the idea that violence saves, solves, empowers, or makes whole. In black film, violence is often trotted out as the “fix” for wayward lovers, children, siblings, or friends.

But there’s something even more disturbing than the way filmmakers use violence in black film – the way black audiences respond to it. John Singleton describes this best in the DVD commentary for Baby Boy. During an extended film in the scene, the main character, Jodi and his best friend, Sweet Pea, encounter a group of young boys who had earlier assaulted Jodi and stolen his bike. At gunpoint, Jodi and Sweet Pea line the boys up and punch them, one by one. Unlike his friends who cower before the punch, the last boy stares the “men” in the face boldly. So instead of punching him, Sweet Pea takes off his belt and beats the boy mercilessly.

In the commentary, Singleton said that he meant this scene to be a dramatic depiction of how violence and its valuation are transmitted from one generation to another in urban communities. He meant it to be horrifying. But he found that when the film is watched by predominantly black audiences, they – we – laugh.

It’s not funny, people.

Now granted, black filmmakers hold neither the patent or the monopoly on televised violence. White filmmakers have issues of their own, especially the routine depiction of sexualized violence against women. But that’s another post for another day. At issue here is the statement that is being made about African Americans’ valuation of relational violence by its depiction ad nauseam in black movies and by audiences’ response to it. What meaning does this have for our relationships? What meaning might it have had for Rihanna and Chris? Perhaps none. But we need to raise the question.

An Open Letter to Tyler Perry

Dear Mr. Perry,

Do you like women? Not “like” as in gay or straight, but “like” as in respect. I have seen a few of your films now – Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, and Why Did I Get Married? And increasingly, I find myself questioning whether you truly love, respect, and appreciate women in their own right.

Don’t get me wrong. I have found your films entertaining and thought-provoking, even if a little over the top. I have laughed, groaned, and mourned along with your characters. And I have truly appreciated your attempt to portray black women in roles that expand beyond the skimpily dressed, booty shaking figures that we see on MTV and BET. In your latest film, Why Did I Get Married?, you made a point of depicting professional, highly educated black women. And as woman with a few graduate degrees, I saw part of myself in your characters’ struggles to balance work, family, and self.

But at the end of every film, I was discomfited despite having had a good laugh. And when people asked me whether I liked the movie, I struggled to express the conflicting feelings within: I was entertained and glad I saw it but I’m not sure that I liked it and perhaps I could have waited for the DVD.

Leaving the theatre after viewing Why Did I Get Married?, my husband and I did our standard check in. “What’d you think?” he said. “It was entertaining but…” I paused before continuing, “I’m starting to wonder if Tyler Perry likes women.”

You see, Mr. Perry, I have noticed a disturbing pattern in how you resolve your films: the solution to the woman’s problems is always located in a man. You seem to think women incapable of standing on their own, being happy, whole, and successful outside of a relationship with a man.

Let me assure you that I am not one of those “I don’t need a man” sisters. I have been married for 10 years now and my husband’s unconditional love and support has helped me to become who I am. However, I have also learned that my ability to truly love my husband is only made possible because loving him is a choice which I freely make – over and over again. I am not with him because I am afraid of being alone. I am not with him because I think that life would be meaningless without him. I am not with him because I feel otherwise incomplete. I am certain that I could live – and thrive – without my husband. But I choose to share life without him because he makes it richer. I’ve come to think of my marriage as the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae: the sundae is good by itself, but the cherry makes it different and better (and Mr. Perry – I really like cherries).

But your idea of “happily ever after” always involves a woman finding happiness in a new relationship or becoming a “better wife.” Your female characters transfer their emotional dependency from one man to another. (Really, couldn’t Helen have at least gotten an apartment of her own before investing her happiness in Orlando? Couldn’t Sheila have done the same before marrying Sheriff Troy, less than a year after her divorce from Mike?) Professional women sacrifice their career aspirations in order to accommodate their husband’s desire for more children. (Dianne’s concern about pregnancy jeopardizing her career was a valid one held by many women. Rather than trivializing it as “selfish,” perhaps she and Terry could have had a discussion about how to accommodate her professional aspirations as they raised their family, instead of her “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you” speech. I’m not saying that marriage should not involve compromise. I’m just asking for a little reciprocity). And sisters who seem to have it together, including supportive husbands, turn out to be emotionally repressed. (Why couldn’t you at least let Patricia be emotionally balanced, given the fact that you portrayed three seemingly healthy men? Do you really think we’re all screwed up?).

I’m worried because I’ve seen a lot of women like this – in my personal life and in my career as a psychologist. I’ve seen women who sacrificed their educational and occupational dreams because their husband’s job required frequent moves or forced them to take on a disproportionate share of family and household responsibilities (in addition to their jobs). I’ve seen women who have denied themselves to take care of the needs of everyone around them. These women have ended up in my office – depressed, anxious, overweight, and just plain stressed out. And all the while feeling like they had no right to complain because “at least I have a good man.”

I really appreciate your emphasis on forgiveness in your movies. But I wish you’d also emphasize the importance of reciprocity as well as individual health and fulfillment. I know that you’re trying to do something good, so I want to push you to do more. Because ultimately, I believe that you do like women, that you love women. You just don’t know how. So right now all you’re doing is replacing one stereotype – the sex-craved jezebel – with two others that are slightly better – the needy, victimized woman or the superstrong sister. You’re pulling the rug from beneath us even as you give us legs. And unfortunately, because many of us are so battle weary from the assault on our images, we don’t realize that we should expect better. But we deserve better. And I have faith that you can – and want to – do better.