(Originally published on http://www.newsworks.org, the online news source for WHYY – NPR in Philadelphia on Nov. 16, 2010)
On the same weekend that Tyler Perry’s film adaption For Colored Girls opened in theaters, the following news stories were reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
A story stating that leads were being sought in a brutal attack on Marsha Moore, a community activist in Southwest Philadelphia. Ms. Moore, a Citizens Crime Commission award winner and block captain was savagely beaten in her home with a metal pipe.
A story about twenty year-old Mary Elizabeth Beck, found dead in her boyfriend’s home with five gunshot wounds in an apparent murder-suicide. Her boyfriend was found nearby, dead by two gunshot wounds. According to the news report, the young woman’s father had “feared something terribly wrong.”
Elaine Goldberg’s half-naked body was found in “a trash-strewn lot in Kensington.” The twenty-one year old former honor student had been strangled.
Krystal Skinner, stabbed to death in front of her child; only twenty-three, an “honors student who took classes at Rutgers, worked part-time at a deli, and had an internship with the state Division of Youth and Family Services.” On trial for her murder and for endangering the welfare of their child, is her boyfriend, Troy Whye. Whye’s niece testified that Whye told her, “If she (Krystal) keeps acting like that, I’m going to have to kill her. She’s getting on my nerves.”
One day’s news, in one city. And for all the eviscerating comments (reviews have called it “ham-handed,” “cartoonish,” and “shamelessly terrible”) from reviewers of Mr. Perry’s film, one thing stands out to me after viewing it. The film is a reminder, in no uncertain terms, that a lot of women are being hurt by men. It’s not an easy message to absorb, but it is a reminder worth thinking about, and thinking hard. The expected backlash (not all men are abusers) has erupted, as it did when the original drama was staged in 1977. To that end, I would ask, how many domestic violence shelters or rape prevention classes do you know of for men?
Based on the dramatic work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by black feminist author Ntozakhe Shange, the film stays true to the stories of seven women of color who weave their individual stories into one whole cloth. In both the original drama – which is staged as a long “choreo-poem” – and the film version, these women tell their terrible stories of rape, infidelity, child abuse, mental illness, teen pregnancy, abortion, and crushed dreams. For Colored Girls may first have been staged in 1977, but the very particular horrors it dramatizes are as sadly recognizable in 2010 as they were then.
In her introduction to the newest published version of her fierce and lyrical prose poem,
Ntozakhe Shange speaks of “global misogyny” and “the silent endurance of so many women.” She says of her fictional characters’ journeys, “The personal story of a woman became every woman, the solo voice became many. Each poem fell into its rightful place, a rainbow of colors, shapes, and timbres of voice, my solo instrument blossoming into a cosmic chamber ensemble.”
Ultimately that’s what the voices in the film do as well. They blossom into a cosmic chamber ensemble of women hurt and lost, working their way toward being found (except for Whoopi Goldberg, who seems to be in another film altogether). Director Perry takes a big leap, using the best of Shange’s intentions, having each actress in the film deliver a prolonged monologue directly from the original prose/poem. A bit disconcerting to the modern filmgoer, not used to long stanzas of emotionally charged lyricism, but if you give yourself over to it, and just revel in the language, the rewards are there.
The women in last weekend’s newspaper didn’t have the language of a poet to describe their lives. Newspaper stories are meant to report the facts. Metal pipes, kitchen knives, a fist, gunshot wounds, a part of a body glimpsed through a window, closed blinds, a trash-strewn lot, a rock. One day, in one city. Mary Elizabeth Beck, Elaine Goldberg, Krystal Skinner, Marsha Moore. Those were just the ones that made the paper.
Tyler Perry’s film ends, improbably, in a group hug, the seven women leaning on one another for support; a Hollywood ending that wraps up Shange’s narrative much too neatly. In my own Polish/Irish family – a family of six sisters whose entwined lives have also been marred by domestic violence – we, too, lean on one another and hope for better times. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can do.