“For Colored Girls” and the Films of Tyler Perry

by Borderstan.com November 23, 2010 at 11:01 pm 1,365 1 Comment

Mary Burgan Borderstan Movie Fan

Mary Burgan is the Borderstan Movie Fan.

Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan’s column on movies runs every two weeks. Mary Burgan is a retired professor of English and association executive. Her previous reviews are listed at the end of this post. You can contact Mary by email.

I went to see For Colored Girls partly because I had been wondering about the films of Tyler Perry. An African-American friend from my church choir got so carried away praising his movies to me last summer that I resolved to investigate them.

I saw his posters at theaters. And when I went to the Cineplex, I noticed lots of black customers at the ticket counter, and I realized that they were going to the latest Tyler Perry film.

Meanwhile, in the auditoriums where I was heading to see the latest George Clooney or Meryl Streep flick, there were hardly any African-Americans in the audience. My choir friend made me see that despite all our efforts toward diversity in America, we tend to segregate ourselves as movie audiences.

Tyler Perry is one of the most prolific and popular film-makers in the country, but very few white people know about his movies.

Crazy Madea

People in the black community can tell you about crazy Madea in the wildly popular series where Perry lets himself loose in grandma drag to tell everyone off, especially the crazy church people in her family, performing uproarious take-offs on everything in black culture from preacher styles to hip hop. Madea knows no bounds, but she resolutely defends the underdog and preaches joyous forgiveness by the end of all her movies.

Critics tend to deplore the stereotype that African-American comedians like Tyler Perry have used as send-ups of black matriarchal power, but when I talk with black people about the broad satire, they respond that most white people just don’t get it. But white people do get Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams and John Travolta, and find these actors very, very funny when they don women’s clothes.

I don’t have space here to talk about the demeaning of elderly women, black or white, by men in drag. I just want to say that although such characterizations are never in the most refined taste, Tyler Perry often gets charged with demeaning black culture when he uses them in his films, while similar white stereotyping gets a bye.

Spike Lee’s Criticism of Perry

Perry doesn’t pretend to be a nuanced artist, but he got very angry when his 60 Minutes interviewer quoted Spike Lee’s criticism of him as engaging in “coonery.”

Perry first invoked his “fan base” as a refutation of Lee’s criticism of his characters, but his more important response was his argument that, “It’s attitudes like [Lee’s] that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist and that’s why there’s no material speaking to them.”

Black Women and Perry’s Movies

We all like to see ourselves glorified in the movies, which is why black women flock to Tyler Perry’s movies such as Why Did I Get Married? and Why Did I Get Married Too? These surveys of contemporary relationships in the black community feature a spectrum of middle-class couples who have been together since college and share one another’s joys and pain.

The women put up with a lot from their men, but they stick together. Some African-American critics have complained that the Perry films give a distorted image of black males as mostly unreliable, and they’re right about the characterization. But one African-American friend joked to me that her main problem with Perry’s male characters is that she can’t find any of those gleaming, handsome brothers, reliable or not, in her own neighborhood.

For Colored Girls

So what about Perry’s ambitious effort to take Ntozake Shange’s 1974 choral play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf to the screen? It’s clear to me that he is using his fame and money there to stretch the possibilities of popular African-American film rather than to engage in more stereotyping.

He did the same thing in co-producing Precious with Oprah Winfrey last year, even though that fine, harsh film went so against happy stereotypes that neither black nor white audiences wanted to endure it. For Colored Girls is easier to watch, though it has its share of unimaginable tragedy. Like Precious, I think it is an essential film.

What For Colored Girls offers are stunning performances from a spectrum of African-American actresses who are rarely given so much scope in ordinary Hollywood movies. The list includes Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Kimberly Elise, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Kerry Washington and Tessa Thompson.

I was not so impressed by Goldberg and Jackson, perhaps the most familiar of these artists to a white audience, but the performances of the others blew me away.

Kimberly Elise has been in a lot of Perry movies, for example, and she glows in each of her characterizations as an ordinary black woman trying to cope with the frustrations of living with a man who is always angry about the barriers set up for him. I don’t think that Elise’s terrific acting has much to do with stereotyping. Or maybe it just transforms the stereotype, as so much good art does.

The same would be true of the acting of Phylicia Rashad, the lawyer wife who managed to bring “Cliff Huxtable” to heel in The Cosby Show. Rashad has lately become an essential actress on the American stage. She is a powerful presence in For Colored Girls, managing to bring the pain of being an older black woman in America to bear not in a matriarchal take-off but in a culmination of the lyrical vision of Shange. Rashad is led there by the fearless direction of Tyler Perry, whose method can be very powerful because it doesn’t neglect the obvious.

I’m not suggesting that everyone rush out to watch Madea Goes to Jail or Why Did I Get Married Too? for they are highly uneven combinations of comic abandon and over-the-top melodrama. But films like them have given Perry a place to stand from which he can present deeper and more subtle depictions of real black people who live, like most white people, in the context of excess and limitation. And who deserve to have “material speaking to them.”

In this season of finding things to be thankful for in American culture, I am inclined to include the movies of Tyler Perry on my list.

Other Reviews by The Borderstan Movie Fan


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