Tuesday, October 27, 2009

As much as we are loathe to admit it, Tyler Perry is the only one who can bring Colored Girls to the big screen

When sometime last month Tyler Perry got his hands on the rights to that classic of African American theater, Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, an abrupt, audible, collective gasp could be heard throughout the African American community. At the time I intended to pen a few lines in response, but by the time I finished, the moment had passed.

However, on Sunday evening following Tyler Perry’s interview on 60 Minutes, I watched in bemusement and surprise as fierce and impassioned internecine rhetorical skirmishes broke out across the various social media as people chose sides for and against his particular version of entertainment.

But before I begin in earnest, allow me, please, to ask you a question. Why must black art always have a purpose? When did we get so uptight that we could no longer laugh at ourselves or with ourselves?

I’m no Tyler Perry fan. I don’t recall ever even seeing a Tyler Perry movie completely through. I look for certain elements like plot and character develop and a compelling narrative in movies, and these elements seem to be wholly absent from his work.

And recently on a slow Saturday afternoon, I watched episodes of his television shows, The House of Payne and Meet the Browns, and frankly I was not impressed. It just isn’t my brand of humor. However, would I call it coonery or buffoonery? I’m not sure I would go that far. It certainly toes the line, though.

However, what I readily recognize in the argument as to the relevancy and place of Perry’s work is a recapitulation of the whole low culture/high culture debate that has been playing itself out in the African American community for some time now.

It seems that a segment of the population has found its calling as the judge and jury of what constitutes credible and acceptable art, and anything that falls outside its narrow standards of what is and what is not acceptable is deemed coonery and buffoonery and summarily dismissed as unworthy.

But in examining these artistic artifacts, those self-appointed standard bearers do so with the same judgmental and jaundiced eye through which the wider cultural and societal community judges all African Americans as a whole. In other words, we simply recreate the terms of our own denigration for the purpose of enforcing some ever shifting standard of acceptability; shit usually roles downhill.

I am not quite certain why the work of those more skillful and able filmmakers and other artists, those considered serious thus acceptable artists, cannot exist in our community alongside the work of those artists that is considered less polished, less relevant, less acceptable.

If I have any wish, it would that those works falling in the former category either out number or equal the quantity of those works in the latter category so that some balance might be achieved in the positive and negative images of our community entering the mainstream society at large.

And as far as Tyler Perry bringing Ntozake Shange’s play to the big screen, before we begin to throw stones, let’s look at the whole situation with a critical eye. Allow me to deploy this analogy.

Remember the literary character of Uncle Tom? For years that character has been the symbol for acquiescence and capitulation to the whims of an oppressive and demeaning system. But when viewed critically it becomes plain that Uncle Tom used his position in the master’s house to ameliorate the suffering of his brethren in the fields.

And Booker T. Washington has long been reviled as someone who sold his people out by insisting that they cast down their lot where they stood and accept their lot in life as farmers and as craftsmen. And for this he was rewarded by the mainstream culture with an audience with the highest and most powerful government leaders and captains of industry who heaped money upon him to fund his various projects.

Now historical records show that Booker T. Washington used a greater part of the monetary support he received from rich and powerful patrons to provide opportunities for promising youth and secretly fund numerous and various back door efforts to achieve equality and civil rights.

In both cases, nothing appeared as it seemed. While both Uncle Tom and Booker T. Washington showed one public face that pleased their oppressors and earned the ire of black folk, in secret they used the privilege and influence gained to help in the uplift of their community. Could this also be what Tyler Perry hopes to achieve?

Now let me ask you this question. What African American in the entertainment or movie industry has the money or the clout to bring this play to the big screen? At this time, the only one other than Perry that comes to mind is Oprah, and Oprah is still gun shy after sinking so much money, emotion, and energy in bringing Beloved to the big screen only to have black folk stay at home. It is perhaps telling that rap mogul Master P’s I Got the Hook Up outperformed Oprah’s Beloved during the first weekends in which they were released.

So, Perry’s oeuvre of so-called coonery and buffoonery has put him in the unique position money wise and influence wise to bring a number of African American classic works such as Shange’s Colored Girls to the big screen. If it were not for him doing so, how much longer would we have to wait for someone to come along with the money and the clout and the will?

I would only hope that in doing so he would recognize his limitations as a film maker and bring in a team of professionals to do the heavy lifting.

16 comments:

msladydeborah said...

Max,

I don't think that he is the only one who can bring For Colored Girls to the screen. There is a circle of actors and directors who could of done that years ago. They have the money, expertise and the clout to do so. The choreopoem is already on film with a cast of the Black Hollywood elite filling the roles.

This is still one of the most important works every produced on Black women. I'm from the generation of women who supported this work and defended the portions that offended the male viewing audience. I find myself trying to remain open minded until the film is actually released. I know that there is a lot of concern over how he will handle the material. I'm curious to see how that is going to play out in his hands. Because I have no doubt that if he doesn't work it right, he's going to find himself at major odds with a lot of sistas from different generations.

I totally agree with you about how Black films and plays are viewed by us. I have never seen the all encompassing Black film. That would also include Roots. Even though it was a well excuted film.

Look at how The Color Purple was treated. And then the NAACP had the nerve to complain that Whoopi didn't get an Oscar? But they turned around and gave her an Image Award. I loved every moment of her acceptance speech because she ripped them a new one for their actions.

When we view white movies, we seem to understand that those characters do not sum up the total white population. Why is it so difficult for us to do the same in Black films? Think about movies like Shaft, Mandingo, Boyz N The Hood, Claudine, do they sum up our total experience? Of course not. But there are a list of good movies featuring Black themes and just like the rest of the industry, there are a some okay B movies and some that we all wish had never been made.

One aspect of Tyler Perry's backstory in his work that I like is how many of his characters come to a point of personal victory and healing. That seems to be missed a lot in his work. I also have to say this, if his work was really that offensive, who is responsible for his success? That would definitely be us-because we are the ones who put up the money to view the work.

I'm going to wait and see what he produces. I'm hoping he'll be on point with this particular work.

MacDaddy said...

If Tyler brings this important work to the screen, it could help him to gain more credibility as a serious director.

Toya said...

I honestly believe that Tyler Perry is not the master of all things foolish as some people believe. I seriously believe black people have begun to take themselves way too seriously. Before TP came along what were some of peoples favorite movies?

Friday - a movie about a man who spends the day with his friend getting high in the hood. Other movies like Don't drink your juice in the hood - whatever that Wayans movie was. Another one "I'm 'Gon Git You Sucka" Since then the Wayans brothers have made a series of movies that are along the same vein like "Dance Flick". While I am sure people have been critical many people watched these movies and laughed. If we go further back we can see that movies like "Dolemite" are considered classics.

So I think black people need to be real here. It isn't about what TP brings to the screen because while he does bring some foolish characters he always does something to cast black people in a positive light. He always has a message. In most of the movies the selfish person becomes someone who cares about others like in "I can do bad all by myself". This is a huge problem in the black community of not supporting those who can do what others wouldn't do.

Tyler Perry has created movies that appeal to all races that is something that many a black director has not been able to do. People complained because there are no black television shows on TV and now there are. Now with the new movie "Precious" we are getting an opportunity to see what he is really capable of. He for one is very conscious of his heritage and it is sad that more people aren't supportive of what he does. Yes, he began with movies that weren't necessarily The Color Purple or Roots but with the clout that he has now he is the only director/producer in a position to bring movies like Colored Girls to thew screen in a way that will even make non-blacks pay attention.

Let's be honest, black Hollywood is very self centered. They have only promoted themselves. But, Tyler Perry has brought many of them together to humorously and dramatically address the underlying problems in the black community. For that he deserves a lot more respect than he gets!

LoudPen said...

Ms. Lady Deborah,

My question is if there were other Black directors and actors who could've brought this play to the big screen years ago...why didn't they?

Toya,

I agree with everything you said. Black ppl. in general act like everything Black is supposed to represent them. My comment to these folks is: GET REAL. What are you talking about? Like really. Artists are going to write about things that they have seen & experienced. So, if you think that everything that Tyler Perry does is supposed to represent you, then I recommend that you re-think that notion.

Max,

I also agree with you...you have stated the hard truth that no one wants to discuss. The fact of the matter is Tyler Perry has the space (TP studios), money, actors, and fan base to bring this play to the big screen AND have it be a success.

rhythm said...

keep hope alive. i think he just may attempt all the heavy lifting himself. and for his no-plot-havin' self to imply that he needs to add a plot to For Colored Girls is a frightening thought. if the proposed treatments i've heard thrown around are true, this film is set up to be an epic disaster as artistic translation goes. i'm afraid.

md20737 said...

TP is both talented and intelligent. His work is considered coonery bc there is nothing balance out an image of brown speaking broken english, imaginary words, and an outfit 2 sizes to small. That is acceptable the 1st or 2nd time we see it, but every time is a bit much for my taste. My philosphy if you dont like it, dont watch it. And apperently everyone loves it.

Eco.Soul.Intellectual said...

Soul Brother,

I really enjoyed your points here. I had a knock down drag out about capital and the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, capital is not the only thing that moves films, it is the political. If you politically offend, someone with larger capital will ensure your projects never see daylight. I am convinced that Perry, though he gives you a pull'em up the bootstraps version, has political capital behind him.

With that said, Danny Glover has been attempting to produce and epic movie around the Haitian Revolution and Toussaint L'Ouverture. He got millions from President Chavez of Venezuela. Where is Glover and his talents? Somewhere far from the screen. Interestingly, Sean Penn enjoys making criticisms about the US government, visits Venezuela and still gets gigs.

As a former entertainment journalist, the biggest issue is the division among African-American actors to financially pool together.

Lastly, I will stop, why does one have to act like a fool to get money to do something right? Is this the American way that I've been missing. It seems like it is similar to 18th & 19th century organized thugs, mafias, and European gangsters who terrorized neighborhoods, only to be the capital that backs up politicians today.

the uppity Negro said...

I think we hate on Tyler Perry because he reminds us how some of us really are in our various familial settings--we don't like to see ourselves as caricatures.

That aside...

I agree with you Max, I think Tyler is the only one who can really produce it right now. Even if others have the power, they're not doing it, Tyler is. Let's stop drinking the haterade and support him in this effort.

My response to those that think he's not going to do a good job of portraying black women is to ask him what have they done to portray themselves; Perry saw a void and decided to fill it to the best of his ability. Can't hate on a brotha for doing that.e

Max Reddick said...

Let me say something about TP being the only one who can bring it to the big screen. I think the important word here is WILL. There may be others who have the money and the clout to bring it to the big screen. I will capitulate on that point to make this one. Do they have the WILL to bring it and works like it to the big screen. And if so, why aren't they doing it.

And OneChele, my dear blog sister, a white such as Spielberg could bring it to the big screen and could do it well. Spielberg did a masteful job with The Color Purple. It is one of my all time favorite movies. I was even going to name by youngest son Harpo. But after black people jumped all over him for even having the audacity to try to portray the black community and tackle such serious ills in the black community and after black people stayed home for Amistad, do you think he would or any other white film maker would have the WILL try this one.

Again, my greatest reservation is that Perry does not possess the film making skills requisite to pulling this thing off. But I think he realizes the importance of this project, so he will pull together the necessary personel to make it right.

uglyblackjohn said...

Is he showing one face to his bosses while secretly trying to make things better for Blacks who will come after him?
Damn, that was a good point.

SS did a great job with The Color Purple.
Maybe Kelsey Grammar could have assembled a crew to get this movie made.
But TP has proven his worth as a Cash Cow so the studio heads were beholden to give him a production shot at a film of his choosing.

I don't think people are doubting his ability to produce a marketable film - only that he may lack the chops to make an important and quality film.
It's like thinking Isiah Thomas or MJ can't run a professional b-ball team.
Just because they're good at one aspect doesn't mean that they are qualified for the next level

Renee said...

Max,

The king of coonery should not be making this film. If we step outside of the race aspect of his work, gender is still very much a factor. A man that promotes and profits from a genderized minstrel show not be making a womans movie of this importance. I am tired of men thinking that they can speak for women. It is his patriarchal privilege that makes him believe that this is the right venue for his dubious talents. They didn't choose him because they thought he was a wonderful director. Let's be honest the work that he has done has not been that difficult. They choose him because he has a big name and consider him to bankable.

Lyn Marie said...

The whole conversation about Tyler Perry leading a minstrel show is at best misdirected. TP said the characters are parts of the women in his life and in his neighborhood. In the 60 minutes piece they meet a few of those women. They were not offended. He is tell his story, so why is he a minstrel for telling his story? I also think that Tyler's characters go beyond the color barrier.

I am Black and White I have Aunties that that have some Madea characteristics but my White Grandmother from New Hampshire makes Madea look tame. My Grammie did pack a gun, drove a big black caddie, ran her town hall for 60+ year, became a sheriff in her town at 73 and got her pilots license at 84. Just to name a few of her deeds.

Characters come in all sizes, shapes and colors. Why do we need to limit our experiences? Sometimes we do have family members that are characters good or bad they bring extra spice to those stories that are passed from generation to generation.

Max Reddick said...

@UBJ

Every now and then, I actually make a good point. And I think Kelsey Grammar did an excellent job w/ Girlfriends which surprised me.

But I think people should have every reason to doubt his chops. He doesn't have any. That's why I hope he will have the sense to get him some qualified help on this one.

@Renee

I agree with you about privileged speech. However, the playwright has made the utterance; the speech and ethos belongs uniquely to her and is her experience of womanhood. The most enduring quality of this work is how this experience resonates so soundly with woman, most particularly African American women. But anyone who takes on bringing this work to the big screen, whether man or woman, can offer only an interpretation of the original. So the question then becomes what is lost in translation should a man bring this work to the big screen?

@ Lynn Marie

The reason for TP's success is that the characters, no matter how undeveloped, are so recognizable to so many people. Granted he offers caricatures of the originals, but such is entertainment. My grandmother, too, was a character in her own right. And often when I look at the character of Madea, I see the brash unctuousness of my grandmother.

Invisible Woman said...
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Invisible Woman said...
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Invisible Woman said...

amen 10 times over to that last paragraph in your post and last comment, for real

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