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Who Should Have Directed ‘For Colored Girls’?

Aymar Jean Christian October 22, 2010 uncategorized 12 Comments

So the reviews are out! And they are bad vitriolic. What went wrong?

(UPDATE!: In the end, despite early pans, reviews for For Colored Girls are just as mixed as with all of Tyler Perry’s films. For an answer why, see my previous post on why critics can’t seem to make up their mind on Perry).

ORIGINAL: What a strange question to ask one year after Tyler Perry announced he would write and direct a film adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s classic choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. When the announcement went live the blogosphere went wild, going through the five stages of grief: anger that Tyler Perry would take on such a highbrow work, denial that it was actually happening (wasn’t ayoung black female director, Nzingha Stewart, supposed to do it?), bargaining that even though it was Tyler Perry, Shange was still credited for the story meaning her language would be preserved, depression of course, and finally acceptance: only Tyler Perry could get a high-budget version of this film made, and the deal was done.

Then: hope! Some of us actually thought it was going well. The cast was stellar, a who’s who of black actresses today. After all, Perry clearly had ambitions to be a better director and gain critical attention. He had money and help.

We had a lot of encouraging signs:

1) Lionsgate moved up the film’s release date from Perry’s usual January/February domain — where he’s more competitive and the field is less crowded — to an Academy-friendly November. Was the film so good it could actually nab a gold statue?

2) The first trailer came out: well-lit! Emotive! Original language!

3) Ntozake Shange saw the film and spoke approvingly — although, in retrospect, equivocally — about about it: “He kept a lot of my language, that’s what I liked most,” she told the New York Times’ Felicia Lee.

4) Then the marketing came out in full force: posters, ads, trailers all gorgeous! It looked like it’d been carefully thought through.

Oh well! Perhaps we should have known better. We’ll know in two weeks! After all, how could such a difficult task be completed in just one year? It would take a true genius to take Shange from the stage to screen, and as much as Perry has grown — Variety agrees – it’s a job for a true creative mastermind.

For Colored Girls (2010) really faces a genre issue. It had to be either art film (à la Howl) or mainstream studio picture without much of the original language. Tyler Perry too often lies in between those two poles, as I once argued, shunning the art-house circuit while not quite mastering the Hollywood style.

Who could have done it better? A lot of people. Here are 10 suggestions of what could have been. There are countless others who might’ve done the job. My knowledge is limited. Who would you pick?:

ART HOUSE ROUTE:

Julie Dash - When the news broke about Perry’s involvement, the first word on the tongues of cinephiles was “why not Julie Dash?” The short answer is obvious: as classic as Daughters of the Dust is, Tyler Perry has $500 million in grosses, and money trumps artistry, most of the time. Dash hasn’t done many high profile projects, but I think everyone would love to see her adaptation of the classic work.

Lee Daniels - This isn’t just a Precious nod. Daniels has consistently shown an interest in the transgressive and challenging. He’s actually quite a daring filmmaker and producer, and it seems possible he’d be willing to go beyond conventions to tell a difficult story. It might not be clean, but it would certainly be interesting.

Charles BurnettBurnett, like Dash, is more famous for early work, but given the money and opportunity, I find it hard to believe he couldn’t craft something psychological interesting, non-narrative and deep. Plus: he knows the social context from which For Colored arose, which isn’t a guarantee of quality, but at least suggests he’d be sensitive to the material.

Sofia CoppolaMost black cineastes would prefer a black female director, for obvious reasons, but I see no reason to limit myself in the land of speculation. Why not Coppola? Coppola’s casual relationship with plot and her sensitively to subtle emotion would make an interesting complement to Shange’s piece, which is high on drama but lacking in a clear narrative. Coppola might work well the latter and find a happy medium for the former.

Sally Potter - I might be one of the few Sally Potter fans around but she is one of the more daring female directors working today (the list is semi-long: Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Jane Campion, etc.). I have no idea what Potter would do with For Colored Girls, but given that she’s filmed a movie entirely in iambic pentameter, in first-person camera with no sets, and across 400 years of time, I can guarantee it would be nothing if not interesting.

STUDIO ROUTE:

Kasi Lemmons – After Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons was the other “why not her?” on peoples’ lips last year. Why not? Lemmons knows how to tell an engaging story without sacrificing depth or politics. I have a feeling she could make For Colored Girls a critical and commercial success.

Nzingha Stewart – Or why not the black female director already attached to the project? Stewart has the benefit of being an up-and-comer, and, like all directors of music videos, knows the art of visual pleasure. While For Colored Girls needs a literate person at the helm — a lover of language! — I see no reason why Stewart, with her fresh mind, paired with a skilled writer couldn’t knock it out of the park. What I don’t know is how much Stewart influenced the current production, so it’s possible her hand is already in it.

Spike Lee – Black women have been skeptical of Spike Lee for a long time, and with good reasons. Yet as the country’s black grandfather of cinema, I think he deserves consideration, not only because of his stature, but also because he knows how to take risks, visually and narratively, while still giving audiences a story they can follow. I even thought Miracle at St. Anna had something to say.

Mira Nair – Mira Nair hasn’t been at the top of her game lately, but I think we should all remember how well she does with narratives about ethnicity and culture. Mississippi Masala was wonderfully told tale about becoming oneself within cultural boundaries (Indian, African, African-American) but constructed through a conventional narrative. Monsoon Wedding is an intimate and affecting tale of women who navigate their culture and try to find freedom.

Atom Egoyan - Egoyan is more an art-house director with occasional Hollywood leanings, which is why I think he’d been perfect to navigate the complex dance between arty and mainstream necessary to turn For Colored Girls into a blockbuster narrative.

Of course a good director is nothing without a solid script, and it takes a gifted writer to craft an engaging, non-pandering story from the sophistication of For Colored Girls. I would go to the theater world and nabbed one of the many playwrights around who have a sensitivity to both narrative and language. I don’t know if there are many filmmakers out there attuned enough to the written word to craft an appropriate story.

Personally, I’m partial to an art-house route. This limits the audience for the film — maybe! — but I think it’s really the only way to bring out what is ultimately a very complicated and erudite work. What would you do?

As Shadow and Act noted on Facebook: “Food for thought – Tyler Perry’s take on For Colored Girls doesn’t have to be the last word on it; another filmmaker could still adapt it in the future. Won’t be the first time a literary work has been made into multiple films. So don’t hang yourselves if you see the film and despise it ;) .”

Anyway, there’s a new Madea movie coming out next year. I’m sure it’ll be hilarious, confuse critics and make buckets of cash. In 10+ years, someone might take another stab at For Colored Girls. Everything will be as it should be!

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

12 Comments

  1. mpg October 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    AJC!

    A little typo: You meant the “five stages of grief” in the first paragraph. Five stages of death could be something else.

    I hate to say, though, I can’t partake in the optimism of thinking there will be another big-screen, well-distributed version of “For Colored Girls” within the next two decades. The start-up costs are too high and, as you noted in your piece on black female actresses, Hollywood shows deep caution in investing in films that they fear will be received by the public as “black” stories. I would assume that Perry financed this one himself, through channels outside the normal Hollywood machine.

    I’m interested in whether or not this film will stir up (again) the issue of “negative portrayals” of black men in works by black women. Obviously, here, the issue is compounded by the prominence of Perry’s name. Will those who raise the issue blame Shange or Perry? And, if they do blame Perry, to what extent will his unconventional masculinity (his extended bachelorhood, his diva worship, and the suspicion surrounding both) be raised as exhibit A that 1) he’s gay and 2) by virtue of that he is equivalent to a black woman?

    I’m not saying I think this will be a particularly new or productive debate. But I’m betting this is the road ahead, and I’m hoping that a positive intervention of some sort can be made so we’re not just reliving the fight over the film of The Color Purple (and the TV-movie The Women of Brewster Place) all over again. (The fight started when the novels were released but, unsurprisingly, intensified when the mass-distributed and artistically-simplified films appeared).

  2. Aymar Jean Christian October 24, 2010 at 11:32 am

    You know, what? I think you’re probably right about the “negative portrayals of black men” meme coming up. I mean, I was shocked when it came up after ‘Precious’: you barely see a black man throughout the whole thing? Anyway, where would we be if we don’t constantly fret about men in this society? But I don’t think it’ll lead to any further questioning of Perry. It seems everyone’s fine with the elephant in the room, which happens every day outside of show biz.

    And yes, it’s very wishful thinking to anticipate another ‘For Colored Girls’. Sure, there’s like five ‘Great Gatsby’s and 17 million Shakesperean films, but we know why those are made. Plus, the high profile nature of this version — clout of the actresses, quality of the production — will make say: “well, if it didn’t work here, it can’t work.’ Which is a shame. Because a nimble mind could’ve done something magical. I refuse to believe that some written works can’t be films.

  3. mpg October 25, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    I forgot that the “no good black men” meme had surfaced during Precious. I guess, for me, it was swallowed by the general “negative portrayals of black people” conversation.

    I’m not giving up on the idea that this is going to be tied back (by some black Christians and hardcore Afrocentrics alike) to the sexuality of Perry and Lee Daniels. One of the favorite race traitor gambits is to blame the homos.I find this especially interesting since the blame for race treachery otherwise falls on women of color (for failing to back the men). The black gay man, on the other hand, sometimes falls into the camp of the black man with a white woman… Exhibit A being Aaron McGruder’s Tom DuBois. But that would take us far afield, and so I’ll pause.

    As always, keep up the good work.

    PS: After seeing your list of the top-grossing black actresses, I have not stopped crying. One of my faves (though she is older) is Alfre Woodard. Only Anika Noni Rose and Viola Davis can really act, no matter what the material. Sanaa Lathan and Thandie Newton do well with strong material. None of the others can hold a candle. And that makes me sad. J-Hud and Halle-B should have to give their Oscars to Woodard and Lynn Whitfield, Lonette McKee, or Ruby Dee. I know: I’m old!

  4. Aymar Jean Christian October 25, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Yea, I happen to have liked Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, but her acting in subsequent films have put that Oscar into question. J-Hud clearly got her Oscar too early — she’s good when she sings — but I still hold out hope that she can grow. It might just take some time. Bery’s running out of time. Poor Anika — who by the way is doing a great guest role on The Good Wife right now — just hasn’t been given a chance (the Disney movie only kinda counts — I didn’t count animated films in the blog). And these days it seems like the only older actresses that can sell a film are Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren. There are so many good older black actresses — I’d add, for comedy, Jenifer Lewis, and Loretta Devine, who probably works the most often — but Hollywood doesn’t trust them.

  5. mpg October 25, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Yes, your comedy instincts are right on, although I think Lewis and Devine can do drama as well.

    Sorry, my favorite Berry is still her brief appearance in Jungle Fever. She was an amazing crack whore. I have never forgiven any of the participants in Monster’s Ball. The only person worth half a squat was Heath Ledger IMO, and I don’t always like him. But he was the only one in that who made me care about his misfortune.

    And if Halle plays Aretha… well, I just might have to move to France after all. What an abomination that wold be.

    Amen about Streep and Mirren. Can Dame Judi Dench still sell a movie?

  6. Aymar Jean Christian October 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    I dunno about Dench. I feel like she’s always supporting these days. I think there are people who see her movies because they say, “well, if she’s in it, it must be good,” but I think her draw is in doubt.

    Berry’s got a bunch of movies planned, and the most exciting for me is the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas just because it sounds like big ambitious Oscar bait. I bought the book but never really started it: I’ll have to now! So if she’s going to stick around, we’ll know after 2 years.

  7. Nicole November 11, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    This movie was beauiful, it moved me! The reviewers are haters! Tyler Perry did a great job, if he did not do a great job, THIS ARTICAL WOULD NOT BE NECESSARY.

  8. mpg236 November 17, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    @ Nicole — would you say more about what your post means? The article came out before the film was released and wasn’t really dependent upon the movie.

    I’m also curious: Have you seen or read Ntozake Shange’s play? If you have, I’m curious as to whether your favorite parts of the movie were from her writing and not Tyler Perry’s….

  9. Toirg February 6, 2011 at 12:29 am

    Does anybody know about two Julie Dash films “Making Angels” (made in 2010) and “The Scarapist (made in 2009)? The Wikipedia article about Julie Dash (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julie_Dash) says she made these films, but I can’t get any information about them. I’m writing an article about Julie Dash and I need to know about these films. Thanks.

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