(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 Burnett – Burnett, 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 Coppola – Most 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.
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!