Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tyler Perry's Gender Problem: Enuf is Enuf. Two articles by Courtney Young

image of Ntozake Shange play poster and photo of Tyler Perry is from here

From The Nation. Please click on each title to link back.

For Colored Girls, Is Tyler Perry's Film Enuf?


Courtney Young
November 12, 2010

What is the price paid when a director widely considered to be anti-feminist interprets a beloved black feminist text for film? Can a piece as endearing as Ntozake Shange's 1975 classic choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Not Enuf reach its full cinematic potential outside the hands of a black female director? When movie mogul Tyler Perry first announced he would be reviving the celebrated text for the screen, many fans of the original production reacted with dismay, worry, even anger. A deft combination of poetry, music and movement, the choreopoem gives life to the voices of seven unnamed women distinguished on stage only by a singular color of dress. The piece allows each woman to relay her story frankly, at times through a collective narration, airing a host of issues that affect black women's lives—rape, abortion, domestic abuse and child murder, but also love, sex, and friendship. Would the complexity of black women's lives and voices survive in Perry's hands?

Before the film even hit theatres on November 5, reviews were running the gamut. At The Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt eviscerated the film as "too crude and stagy for Shange's transformative evocation of black female life." New York magazine's David Edelstein excoriated Perry's translation, concluding, "He has taken Shange's landmark poem cycle…cut it up, and sewn its bloody entrails into a tawdry, masochistic soap opera that exponentially ups the Precious ante." But not all reviewers found the film to be an unmitigated disaster. Mark Anthony Neal, a professor at Duke University, writing for The Loop, asserts that, "The film's commercial success marks one of the visible moments for mainstream Black Feminism, within a national culture that has been largely ignorant of Black feminist writing and art."

The $20.1 million raked in over opening weekend undoubtedly makes Perry's first R-rated film a financial success. But its initial popularity in no way mitigates Perry's ultimate transgression, committed by so many when adapting classic works: failing to present the characters as they are, rather than as he wants them to be. Perry's refusal to stretch the boundaries of black female expression, which is key to Shange's text, beyond the scope of his own familiarity indicts his direction.

A number of recurring themes inform or, at times, dictate the actions of Perry's female protagonists across his films, with religious messaging being one of them. His choice to center For Colored Girls on this theme is no exception. But Perry fails to fully comprehend Shange's complex portrayal of the ways that black women find God. Shange articulates a spirituality that is fluid and introspective, even divinely feminine. Religion is never centrally cast in the text; spirituality is rather understood as a vehicle through which black women communicate with each other and with themselves. Arguably, the most widely quoted moment in For Colored Girls is when the "lady in red," one of the most memorable characters of the production, asserts, "I found god in myself & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely."

Perry understands religion to be much more domineering. Whoopi Goldberg's character Alice (created solely by Perry and not found in the original text) is a religious fanatic, who literally hoards one daughter and divorces herself from the other with dogma. Conservative religious (as well as homophobic) agendas abound in a reading of Janet Jackson's character, Jo, who discovers her husband secretly has sex with men and has infected her with HIV. When Jo confronts her husband, he retorts that his actions are in part a reaction to her refusal to submit to him, and dim her professional ambitions.

In Shange's choreopoem, the stage is for women and women only. She trusts the power of women vocalizing their own experiences, particularly as they relate to violence. Shange wrote of her need to create For Colored Girls: "I felt the urgency of the moment to tell the long-untold stories of women." But the rape and abuse narratives in Perry's film prioritize men's experiences. One of the most upsetting scenes of Perry's film occurs when Anika Noni Rose's character Yasmine, a dancer and carefree spirit, is brutally date-raped. The scene is cut with images of Jackson's Jo watching an operatic performance of La Donna In Viola ("the lady in purple"—an allusion to one of the characters in the original choreopoem). During the performance, Jo's husband, Carl, covertly exchanges looks of desire with another male patron. The interplay between Yasmine's rape and Carl's flirtation foregrounds male perpetrations of violence and desire in a text that was deliberate in privileging black women's uncompromising expressions of both desire and violence.

Perry also inserts often brutal male characters during crucial moments in female characters' expression of angst or pain in a way that is heavy-handed and antithetical to the original text. Men drive the action and the confessionals in the film, particularly in the case of Crystal, played by Kimberly Elise, a woman battered by the father of her children, Beau Willie. In one of his rages, Beau Willie drops the children from their apartment window, killing them. This scene is taken from one of the confessionals of the choreopoem's lady in red. The lady in red is a powerful author of this tale in the play, moving, acting and reacting to the depth of such pain, but in the film version, Crystal becomes a passive receptacle of Beau Willie's rage, and all of her actions are in response to his. The play intends to let women own trauma confessionals, but Perry's male gaze is written all over these stories.

The brightest light of Perry's production is the remarkable performances; Anika Noni Rose and Loretta Devine in particular have magical moments. As the film ends, the women stand in line, holding each other, wrapped in the weight of their own traumas, a powerful reminder of the number of beautiful, talented black actresses that have yet to find steady employment in Hollywood and independent film, theater and television. Seeing all of these actresses together reminded me that Hollywood is neglecting a powerful resource—black women.

But seeing extraordinary black actresses together is not enough. Perry's most significant failure is understanding that while black women writers like Shange write about the traumas and hate that black women must constantly negotiate, they also speak to joy, solidarity, and the beauty of blackness. Shange published For Colored Girls during a time when some of the best of black feminist literature, written by luminaries such as Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Sonia Sanchez and Alice Walker, was being published; these authors, too, were able to express desire and violence simultaneously. Each time I read Shange's text or see it performed publically, I've always walked away triumphant, in awe. After seeing Perry's film, I walked away feeling nothing but sadness.

To hear Perry tell it, black women are forever in flux amidst hate. But Shange's For Colored Girls grapples with much more than the weight of trauma, injustice and abuse inflicted upon the black female body, the black female spirit. It also revels in the joys of being a black woman—the delights of sisterhood, the majesty of black beauty and the ecstasy of love reciprocated and good sex. Perry's filmmaking doesn't rise to meet the challenge. Some literary and theatrical works are so deeply moving that they belong not only to the author, but to the readers who love the work. For Colored Girls also belongs to black women.


Tyler Perry's Gender Problem


Tyler Perry has rapidly become the most bankable African-American moviemaking brand in Hollywood and an entrepreneurial heavyweight. The seven feature films he has conceived and produced have earned more than $300 million at the box office, with an average opening-weekend gross of $25 million--no small feat for films with predominately black casts. He credits his creative inspiration for these films, in part, to African-American women. So far, so good--that is, until you see the films.

Perry's films typically follow the same timeworn narrative: a woman experiences abandonment and/or abuse at the hands of a "bad" man; she takes umbrage, lashing out at those closest to her, most notably a "good" man in her life; she experiences a revelatory moment of change; and she ends the film settled down with the good man who promises her a better life.

Though Perry repeatedly references his admiration for and allegiance to African-American women as a foundation of his work, his portrayal of women of color undermines the complexity of their experience through his reductionist approach to his characters and his dependence on disquieting gender politics. Perry may see himself as creating modern-day fairy tales for black women, but what he may not realize is that fairy tales, in general, have never been kind to women.

The crux of Perry's gender problem lies in his reliance on conservative gender politics that eschew a more progressive, inclusive agenda. Each of his films advances nearly the same message to his audience (which is overwhelmingly African-American, female, devoutly Christian and over 30). Be demure. Be strong but not too strong. Too much ambition is a detriment to your ability to find a partner and spiritual health. Female beauty can be dangerous. Let a man be a "man." True female fulfillment is found in the role of wife and/or mother. To this effect, the black church plays a central role in Perry's vision. While the church championed equality during the civil rights movement and was instrumental in fighting for the advancement of African-Americans along the lines of race, it has routinely adopted a more conservative agenda along the lines of gender. In using a traditional religious paradigm as the linchpin for his work and by investing in prevailing gender politics, Perry is proposing an agenda that reinforces rather than revolutionizes the marginalized way that black womanhood has been portrayed in popular culture.

Most of Perry's films are based on plays that he wrote, produced, directed and starred in early in his career. More or less morality tales, these plays introduced strong female protagonists and a fervent religious message, and oftentimes featured the gun-toting, sassy, buxom mother figure, called Madea, a character played by Perry himself in drag. Perry has joined the growing cohort of contemporary black male comedians who have played big, sassy black women who dole out sage advice--with an undercurrent of violence--at the flip of a coin. And while Madea is arguably Perry's most popular creation, she too has her critics. "Tyler keeps saying that Madea is based on black women he's known, and maybe so.... But Madea does have connections to the old mammy type. She's mammy-like. If a white director put out this product, the black audience would be appalled," says pre-eminent film scholar Donald Bogle. Black female relationships within Perry's films are often interrupted by the Madea character, who shows up in order to "teach" these women the proper way to femininity that will ultimately lead to Prince Charming and a happy ending.

To be sure, Perry's rise is impressive. He rose from homelessness to owning his own studio on the former headquarters of Delta Air Lines. His House of Payne and Meet the Browns enjoy regular programming on TBS. His book Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings sold 400,000 copies in its first year of release. His DVDs have sold over 25 million copies. And he does cast a host of black actresses in leading roles, such as Lynn Whitfield, Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Sanaa Lathan, Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henson and Alfre Woodard--women who have been largely overlooked by Hollywood. Yet the roles he provides these celebrated actresses with are hardly ideal.

Perry has been incredibly prolific, producing films at an average of two per year. His next film, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, will be released in early September. As in many of his previous films, women will deal with abuse, abandonment and collapsing family structures, in addition to both physical and sexual violence. But the process by which these women move from tragedy into hope is problematic. Perry is uniquely poised to become the second most influential African-American in media (following Oprah Winfrey, of course) and is quickly on his way to reaching the exclusive billionaires' club. But shouldn't he consider creating characters that speak to complexity and not caricature? How can black women achieve equity in media ownership, images and leadership if they're always portrayed as stereotypes? Mr. Perry, you owe your audience something better.

About the Author

Courtney Young
Courtney Young is a graduate of Spelman College and New York University. Her upcoming book by the Feminist Press is a critique of images of Black women in popular culture.

1 comment:

JENNIFER DREW said...

Courtney Young is spot-on - the reason why Tyler Perry's career has been so successful is because he constantly depicts female African American stereotypes - never real black African American women.

What I see are the same old patriarchal/misogynistic messages white men constantly tell women, being repeated by Tyler Perry to black African American women. Just what is Tyler Perry afraid of? The same thing as white men - that women of whatever ethnicity, race or culture will one day rise up in huge numbers against male domination and male oppression.

Yes I know women of colour's experiences are not identical to white women but there are some similarities and that is how men of whatever colour or ethnicity perceive women - namely women in their eyes and definition are always in relation to the default male - never as fully human as the default male.

Patriarchy/male domination over women in other words.