Race-work, Race-love

“For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf” — the movie

In Uncategorized on November 8, 2010 at 11:05 am

“For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf”. The movie.

What?

I think those of us who read the book in college would have never guessed this day was coming. Tyler Perry, went beyond Madea and used his Hollywood Prowess to bring to light another writer’s important work in colored girl history. Those of us who were too scared to define ourselves out loud back then walked into the movie as women of color — nervous and scared — but intrigued – how was Tyler Perry going to pull off this choreopoem? A play is one thing, but a movie?

I went to the 7:35 pm movie on opening night. Believing that the movie was going to be played in one of the larger theaters, I held spaces in the line for my sisters and friends 1.5 hours before the movie started. I was disappointed to see that the movie theater I frequented didn’t think FCG would sell enough seats. The movie was held in one of the smaller movie theaters.

Standing in line, you could tell who read the book. The ones that did, whispered to each other, talked nervously, wondered aloud about Tyler Perry and his motives for re-imaging the choreopoem into a movie. When I asked some of the women why, I was told “It’s Tyler Perry honey. It’s Tyler Perry.”

I laughed. I got it. I felt the same way.

The ones who did not read the book, just found out it was. “Really?” was heard a couple of times.

Surveying the crowd, the majority were Black women, then Black men, and I might venture to say that my friends and I were the only Latinas in the small theater that seated 140 (we were told).

When the 5 o’clock movie let out, many of the audience members were crying. Phenomenal, some said. Wonderful. You’ll cry. And cry some more, some said.

These comments made all the people standing in line even more nervous – even the ones who didn’t read it! I was asked “ Is it going to be that deep?”

The book absolutely is deep. Hits you in your core. The title itself makes an impact. But I couldn’t be too sure about the movie.

Tyler Perry had a lot to live up to – many expectations to confront. It became clear to me that I could not go in the movie thinking that I was going to expect the book. For one, I am a different person then I was at 20. I was beginning to confront my identity as a woman of color then – as a Latina woman of color – engaged in the nascent stages of race work in a world caught within a Black and White war. Brown was drowned out. No matter how loud, persistent, insistent I was the war I encountered was between long standing structures. I chose to align myself with Black. Colored. Civil Rights. Affirmative Action. Opportunity programs. Marches. Protests.

Within that history I found Brown history as well – but it was minimal and I had to chase it. Recover as much as I could.

That is how I encountered the book.

I am encountering the movie as a woman of color living in the 21st century, tired with racial battle fatigue, contributor to race-work through education, having experienced many heartbreaks of my own at this point. As a young woman of color, I identified with issues that were exposed by the young woman in the book. As a adult woman, I identified with many of the adult women in the book.

Despite the movie not living up to the book, I feel strongly that it should be seen. Now, I am not sure if the movie is supposed to live up to the choreopoem.

Still, the movie is important symbolically – the book is finally out of our dusty shelves and within reach to many people. The movie is important historically – it paints the picture of life in the seventies for women of color facing all sorts of abuse (by each other and with men). The movie is important politically – it creates a space for discussion about the racial designations 40 years ago and today, a conversation between younger and older women about what it means to be a woman of color today, and the hope that more women will create more work like FCG. The movie is just important – it brings to life the words that were so powerful when I first read the words in the book.

All of this does not mean that the movie succeeded in living up to the book. And its flaws make me wonder if it was intentionally done that way. The book had few moments of laughter – if there were any moments they were knowing smiles, sarcastic laughter, or wonderment of what the future could bring. The movie had too many moments where I wondered “Should I be laughing right now?” and I couldn’t decide whether Tyler Perry created these moments because heartbreak on film is often harder to watch than to read.

Additionally, the themes were very time-specific – yet they were portrayed in a very modern world. This was a little jarring to see as well.

Finally, Perry made the mistake of evoking characters from other movies into the characters in this film (e.g. Whoopi Goldberg bearing a resemblance to Celie in the Color Purple). These moments should have caused more thought provoking sentiments – the idea that the manifestation of racism in women, particularly if you are a Black woman in the US, can be similar whether you were born in the early 20th century or latter half. This historical trend is very interesting to explore. Instead, these moments caused laughter in the audience, some nervous, some just straight up funny. At inappropriate moments, the laughter seemed to be only encouraged by Perry himself.

I would like to give Perry the benefit of the doubt and think that he knew the book was heart-wrenching and why he chose to insert those moments of laughter. After all, reading about abuse is not easy. Even when disguised as a poem. A poem adequately portrays the process of abuse. Broken moments of trying to understand what happened over and over again. A film has to flow. Abuse does not flow. It is disruptive. It creates chaos. It breaks your heart. How can that be put on film?

Perhaps the flow can be created through laughter. While I am not sure Perry executed these moments appropriately or intentionally all the time, at the end of the day he had to do something to help us survive the film.

I also think the actors all played their parts extremely well. Yes, even Janet Jackson. Usually her flat demeanor in her roles are disturbing – but her flat tones actually worked in FCG – except when the role begged her to be different. She spoke aloud how “un-flat” she would be by describing to her husband how she will react due to her heartbreak – but couldn’t actually do it. Still, I thought it worked.

I wondered if the actresses read FCG when they were younger. I think about Phylicia Rashad and Whoopi Goldberg – the oldest ones in the ensemble — I wondered if they understood the women in the book because maybe just maybe — they were them at some point too.

The biggest reason why I support this movie: because it brought attention to a piece of work that is canonical for some of us – that as women of color we will always treasure in our libraries. That we have the book that predated the new and improved cover today with Tyler Perry’s name on it now. Movies, whether we like it or not, have the ability to bring this kind of obscure work to a larger audience. And while Perry may not be a favorite for some, you cannot discount the power he has to bring in an audience. And this work is too valuable to be kept in our shelves. Too valuable.

My hope is that this piece will inspire women to say ‘Wait a minute – we don’t look at rape that way anymore” or “Abortion has a different place in our lives now”. Ntozake Shange did an excellent job describing the issues that were present in the 1970’s. But in the 21st century – while we may be dealing with the same basic issues – they are also handled differently. And perhaps a young woman, or many women, watching the movie, can say “I want to write something like that for my generation”.

My biggest disappointment in the movie actually had nothing to do with the movie at all. So excuse my departure for a moment.

As in most movies that depict a “racial” theme, previews of future movies are provided within the same genre. So here comes a “Latin@/Mexican” themed film called From Prada to Nada. The preview was riddled with Mexican-American stereotypes, Latin@ buffoonery, and an instant laughter from the audience. For a pain – full 5 to 7 minutes (which seemed like forever) my sisters and friends and I were left with our mouths open. And we all turned to look at each other and said – “No, we don’t have a Tyler Perry – that’s for sure”.

It is one thing to laugh with a movie because you can identify or say damn did he really have to put that out there about our people? It is another to laugh at a movie because of straight up stereotypes.

We don’t have a Tyler Perry in our Latin@ community. We look to books and leaders in the Black community and share in their inspiration. There is no one trying to put Sandra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street in film or Junot Diaz’s Drown or Piri Thomas’s Down these Mean Streets. Instead we have Beverly Hills Chihuahua and From Prada to Nada. I guess Edward James Olmos could only do so much and was only accepted so much in the film industry.

So as a Latina, woman of color, a race-woman – I can’t say enough about the importance of people like Tyler Perry. I know I know I know – he needs to depict more Black women (and men for that matter) in a better light. I know. But supporting films like FCG can perhaps inspire him and other directors to bring out books out of their shelves once and for all and inspire others to do the same with their works. Perhaps it will inspire some of my Brown brothers and sisters to do the same. Perhaps it will inspire Tyler Perry to stop buffoning us with Sofia Vergara type characters and instead look at films for our community too.

Needless to say, we shouldn’t look to Tyler Perry to do this for our Brown communities. Tyler Perry and Edward James Olmos can only do so much.

We can’t say that we have the same in our communities. If you want to see real buffoonery, go see From Prada to Nada. If you want to see more, go see Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Did Tyler Perry give justice to the book? No – but did he bring it out of our shelves – YES! And now maybe more people will read the book (I am certainly making my students do so).

And for my Brown brothers and sisters out there – who among us is the next Tyler Perry? Who among us will work to bring our beloved books out of our dusty shelves?

There is a lot of race-work to be done out there…we gotta have enough race-love to do it.

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