Tyler Perry's black feminist classic?

The successful and arguably sexist filmmaker plans to adapt "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide..."

Published September 4, 2009 6:05PM (EDT)

I learned that Tyler Perry will be adapting Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" via Jay Smooth's Twitter feed, where he followed up the announcement with, "after this Perry will adapt the works of Audre Lorde, tentative title: 'The Master's Tools Are Gonna Build a Sunroof for My Big Ass House.'" I laughed, having just enough knowledge of Perry's, Shange's and Lorde's work to get the joke. Perry's frequently been criticized for the sexism in his wildly popular films, and specifically racialized sexism (or gendered racism); for starters, his "Madea" character is arguably a perfect example of the "mammy" stereotype. And here he is, getting his hands all over a black feminist classic? The hell? More generally, the main problem some of his critics seem to have with Perry is that even if -- as Lorde famously asserted -- "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," they can build you an extremely comfortable coach house on the master's property, as long as you don't mind selling out your people.

So on the one hand, the combination of Perry and Shange seems like a terrible fit. As Nichole of PostBourgie wrote in a guest post at Racialicious, Tyler Perry's "morality plays, on stage and film, scold women: Be quiet, in appearance and voice. Don't try to be more than what you are. Serious ambition is a danger to the family. Be grateful for 'good enough.' Wait for the right man to notice you. Don't bring attention to yourself. Be appropriately thankful when a man takes care of you." It's been a long time since I read "For Colored Girls" in college, but I'm pretty sure that's the exact opposite of Shange's message.

On the other hand, Nichole also notes that "There is little to dispute that TP's target audience is Black women" -- and they have made him a very rich man. You can argue that's internalized oppression at work, and to some extent you might be right, but it would be foolish (especially for a white woman who's never seen one of Perry's plays or films -- hi!) to assume that's the primary reason for his loyal following. It seems more likely that, however disappointingly sexist his stories may be, he's getting something right about African-American women's lives in a way few, if any, filmmakers with his clout ever have. As blogger The Black Scientist put it (in a post I first read on PostBourgie), "I'm not mad at Tyler Perry. His films, which are in some ways modern morality plays, speak to a largely black demographic -- people who can relate for various reasons, whether they are southern, church-going, have a dream of social mobility, like seeing black folks on TV, or whatever. I can admit that I absolutely suffered through "Why Did I Get Married," but just because I thought it sucked doesn't mean it's not a story worthy of being told."

Furthermore, the simple fact that someone with Perry's Hollywood muscle is filming a 34-year-old, explicitly feminist play about African-American women's lives -- one that's actually a series of poems, no less -- is something to get excited about. And speaking of that muscle, Perry recently used it to help secure distribution for Sundance favorite "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (its current title) -- the story of an illiterate, fat 16-year-old, pregnant with her father's child and "imprisoned both emotionally and physically" by her mother. The buzz after Sundance was that the film was phenomenal but way too bleak for mainstream audiences and thus unlikely to be released. Thanks to the combined efforts of Perry and Oprah Winfrey, it's coming out in November.

So, should Tyler Perry be lauded for bringing wider attention to African-American women's stories -- including some incredibly difficult ones, the kind Hollywood prefers to look away from -- or chastised for reinforcing negative stereotypes and sending the message that women are happiest when they depend on a man? Well, like I said, I've never seen any of his movies, and I'm not an African-American woman, so I'm the wrong person to ask. If I had to guess, based on the evidence I have seen, I'd say both. Like most of us, Perry seems to have done some good stuff and some bad stuff. But his support of "Precious" is pretty awesome, and for all I know, he might just do right by Shange's much-loved "choreopoem." So all I really have to say is, please, please, do not let the official title of the upcoming film be "Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf."

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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