I’ll admit to not having ever watched, all the way through, any of Tyler Perry’s movies. I lost my taste, long ago, for the general flavour of commercial film, and since his work seemed more or less to follow that path, I’ve stayed away from it. But when I read, this weekend, that he had been tapped to direct a screen version of Ntozake Shange’s play/poem/spoken word piece for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, I can’t say my eyebrow didn’t rise involuntarily. At Jezebel, Latoya Peterson is dubious, as well:
Shange’s work is a major representation of black female womanhood, and even those of us who cannot find ourselves in her stories can still feel the painful echoes. So I am unsure that someone who has not lived this experience can do it justice. Still, despite my hesitations, I am still pleased that for colored girls… will make it to a wider audience.
In more ways than one, Latoya’s preferences are far more relevant than mine to this discussion. On the one hand, though, I think directors wield far more control over the final product of a film than she is supposing. And another thing I think is worth mentioning here is that it appears that originally, Nzingha Stewart was set to direct and adapt the work. Stewart is best known for music videos, and also, coincidentally, is, you know, an African American woman. Symbolism aside, I’m sure she was cast off for rather standard Hollywood reasons: the execs didn’t like the script, not commercial enough. But that bodes rather ill for the job Perry has been brought in to do, no?
Like just about anyone who is creatively inclined, I do think that there is something to the notion that art has an incredible ability to bridge gulfs of experience. The best moments as a reader or audience member, it seems to me, are those of recognition – short of full-on identification, but nonetheless a feeling of knowing something in a deeper way than mere observation.
But I guess, when art is intensely personal and particular to an actual lived experience – like, say, being a black girl in America – I always feel a bit of hesitation about this boundary crossing ability. It is one thing for me to feel touched, to have something I hadn’t understood before illuminated for me by Their Eyes Were Watching God. It would be an entirely different thing, it seems to me, if I were to propose to write on the same subject matter and claim my insight would be as deep and relevant as Zora Neale Hurston’s.
“Write what you know,” they say. Well, there are things I know, but far more things I don’t and cannot. Admitting my limitations has always seemed about as important a step on the road as anything else. And it seems to me that my role as an outsider is to listen and understand, but not to usurp. Twisty once said something in this vein:
There are inner circles of class solidarity into which an outside “sympathizer” simply cannot tactfully incurse or reasonably expect to be invited. Raise money for causes? Sure. Vote for progressive legislation? Duh. Support the movement rather than pretend to sympathize, risk-free, with individuals? Word. But there comes a point at which one must be content to align oneself with the ideology, and then politely get the hell out their way.
I guess what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way that won’t offend anyone is that from over here, I guess I just wish Tyler Perry would get out of the way. Can he produce vehicles for African American women? Sure. Can he talk endlessly about wanting to see more pieces like for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf in mainstream cinema? Duh. But appropriate an authorial role like that of an adapter or director for himself? That seems a little bit too much like an appropriation, to me.