Negative reviews from respected film critics like The Hollywood Reporter’s Kirk Honeycutt who proclaimed Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls a “this train wreck of a movie” didn’t keep black female filmgoers away. Although Friday night’s box office numbers suggested that For Colored Girls was on pace to gross $28 million, its actual weekend box office receipts of $20.1 million are more than respectable.
In an age when most black films must fight to get just a thousand screens, For Colored Girls, according to BoxOfficeMojo, played on nearly 2,900 screens in 2, 127 theaters, averaging a healthy $9,450. Those numbers may mean little to you but, in Hollywood, they are huge. With a reported total production budget of $21 million, a $20.1 million opening means that For Colored Girls will be profitable. Hopefully, that also means that more black directors besides Tyler Perry will get to make films starring black people.
WATCH GRIO COVERAGE OF THE FILM’S PREMIERE:
Mainstream reviews of the film have been laced with a viciousness rarely seen when evaluating the work of other filmmakers. “For Colored Girls is so shamelessly terrible it would make a great midnight hoot-fest, if you had the stomach to laugh at Shange or some of the best (and most underused) actresses of their generation: Kimberly Elise, Kerry Washington, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, and, as a cartoon sexpot, Thandie Newton, who gets by on her killer timing,” writes New York Magazine’s David Edelstein. The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris, who is African-American, began his review with “Tyler Perry is no stranger to kitchen-sink melodrama. But For Colored Girls is the kitchen sink, the washing machine, the curling iron, the sofa, and the ironing board.”
In his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’ Sullivan writes that “For Colored Girls may, in fact, be Perry’s best film (not saying a lot, I know). It’s certainly his first bid, as a director, for art-house respectability. The real question, however, isn’t whether the movie is any good. It’s why — and for what theoretical audience — did he he make it?” The question of “why and for what theoretical audience” Tyler Perry made this film is pertinent.
Despite many proclamations to the contrary, Tyler Perry is not the worst thing that has ever happened to black film or American cinema. Those who lament his lack of skill but acknowledge that he has improved with each film might want to investigate exactly how many African-Americans are enrolled in film school in this country. While they are at it, they might even note that very few of those schools are even in the South from which Perry hails. And, given the price of film school these days — in 2007, a full year at USC cost just under $50,000, coupled with a sour job market, the on-the-job training strategy Perry has adopted has definitely been the more economical way to go. Surely, if Perry continues to improve, as some of his harshest critics note, then he perhaps possesses the ability to make what those same critics consider “good” films or at least “better” films.
However, skills aside, the most compelling formula for his seemingly unexplainable success in the film industry is the audience Perry makes his films for. In the 21st century, Hollywood’s adult fare is still very male-dominated. If white actresses hardly ever land juicy film roles, then black actresses certainly don’t fare any better.
Last year, Zoe Saldana had a breakout year working in mainstream films but has yet to carry a film on her own. Without Precious, Gabourey Sidibe, whose plus-size figure and darker skin virtually ensure that she would almost never work in Hollywood as anything other than a caretaker or maid on screen, would have no career, let alone an Oscar nomination. Queen Latifah defied the odds for an actress her size because she came from a musical background which meant she already had a fan base.
What’s particularly sad is that, in one film, Perry has employed more black actresses than have appeared on screen in meaty roles in major releases in the last 10 months. In fact, the time frame might be even longer than that. According to IMDB, Phylicia Rashad hasn’t even appeared in ten big screen films.
So it’s rather disingenuous for Perry’s many critics to lay blame solely on him for the state of black film when he is certainly doing his part. Perhaps the quality of Perry’s films would already be up to par if a greater focus were placed on creating a more diverse film industry where a filmmaker as ambitious as Perry could come up through ranks and learn his craft.
Judging by Perry’s runaway success, there is indeed an audience, and not all black mind you (Box Office Mojo notes that 19 percent of the For Colored Girls’ audience was non-black), that is interested in seeing more than white actors on the screen. Clearly, For Colored Girls or any other film with a predominately African-American cast doesn’t mean for “black people only” any more than bigger budget films like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or Salt are just intended for white people.
Let’s just hope that Hollywood will finally wake up and realize that the world really is full of more stories and actors than they regularly acknowledge. After all, the face of the president isn’t the only thing that’s changed.