I am a black woman.
Each morning as I wake, every night I lay down and every moment in between I am this. There were days when this was met with scorn and so many others when my very being was cause for celebration. In this skin, I greeted each day as it came to me, climbing persistently through the rocky brush and sailing fearlessly over windswept clouds. When the world told me I was not enough, that I might be better off being some other thing, someone else in some other place, I held on. Sometimes tightly, sometimes with a feeble grasp, I held on. There were moments when I embraced my blackness, my womanliness, with a certain level of desperation and still others when I beat my breasts with pride.
I would not, could not, let go.
I do not quite remember when I first learned that producer Tyler Perry was planning to bring For Colored Girls to the silver screen. I do recall dismissing the work outright — before a single scene had been shot. “Be careful who you let tell your story,” I muttered to myself. There was an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show that I steadfastly declined to watch. In my mind, a work so wondrously beautiful, so critical to the rich anthology of African-American literature, deserved a finer tribute than Perry could possibly deliver.
While I celebrated his extraordinary success against the odds in a world where there are far too few African-American writers, directors and producers, as a writer I took issue with caricatures that all too often populated his films. Still, I applauded his devotion to providing black actors with a meaningful opportunity in an industry replete with lack. I am one of those people who only saw his films as I sat under the dryer at the beauty shop. I thought his work only slightly better than the hyper-sexualized, misogynist images found on various cable television stations. This, if only because his work seemed more rich in ambition than was his ability to deliver a strong story to match the important themes he was chasing.
Defying the stream of reviews that spanned the spectrum from “horrid” to “triumphant”, I gave in. After all, I had nothing else better to do. My son was off with friends visiting New York University where I hope he will choose to attend classes and chase his own filmmaking dreams. I found myself alone in a swanky corporate apartment with a pint of Jack Daniels, a fresh bottle of diet Coke, a churning icemaker and a not quite half done novel. My literary agent has been waiting patiently for months on end while I find my way through the manuscript. The blank page sent me looking for a reprieve.
I dressed and, with my low expectations, walked to a theater two blocks down 42nd street. “This had better be good,” I said as the self-pay machine spat out the stub.
I quickly found a seat. A few minutes more and I would have been sitting in the film room. The color of the capacity crowd was no surprise. All but a few of the moviegoers were black, like me, save for the three white women who pushed their way to the few remaining seats next to mine. They offered me some of their homemade snacks. I politely declined and settled in.
The first few scenes were mesmerizing. So much so that I knew the next two hours held something different. The film I saw tonight was so compelling, so jarring, that I never took my eyes off the screen.
I was first taken with the sheer power of the actors and actresses Perry had chosen. As is the case with the original work, women carried the film. I was immediately ashamed. Black women, women whose work I celebrated over the years, had chosen this script. Their names are legend: Phylicia Rashād, Thandy Newton, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Whoopi Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose, Janet Jackson, and Kerry Washington. If they had chosen this film, how could I not?
It should be said that Macy Gray’s brief performance as a backroom, drug-addled, illegal abortionist was absolutely stunning. With her words, the first of my tears began to fall. My heart broke a dozen times for her young victim.
Some of the early reviews wrote the male characters off as stick figures, but I found them so very necessary, their roles haunting. I have since read published reviews, editorials and social networks comments mostly from African-American men who feel that the movie unfairly casts them in a tarnished light. I beg to differ. The men of For Colored Girls come to this work, as they did to Ntozake Shange original, as impacted people — men infected with the ills society delivered to them. Whether it was the trauma of war, their own abuse or rejection, they deliver it to their relationships. Some of them do not survive and that’s the point. Some of us don’t.
Michael Ealy brought new meaning, new reverence for the physical and mental devastation our military men and women face. Even as a former Marine, I could not have been touched more deeply. It’s clear that before his gave his service (and by extension his mind and soul) to our nation’s defense, he was a loving creature. He came home broken and brought that brokenness to his relationship with his significant other and their children — with the most tragic consequences. That isn’t an indictment on the character or even black men in general. It’s an indictment on the horrors of war and that fact that we do far too little to support military veterans.
Another man feels trapped by his own sexuality and brings the pain of that imprisonment home to his wife. We want to be angry with him for his deception, and we should be. But let’s reserve a rich serving of disdain for the society that tells him he is not enough, that his sexual orientation is something that must be hidden. Say what you will about Janet Jackson’s ability to carry the role in a credible way. The issue she confronts as the wife of a man living on the “down low” is all too real for far too many of us.
The performance of the men in these roles, and that of the women, was a study in perfection. That perfection was supported by a carefully woven clothe of Ntozake Shange’s original words with Perry’s deft and brilliant interpretation. Let us not forget. Perry did not create this work. But he brought forth contemporary societal issues in the context of Shange’s timeless work in way I could never have imagined. With a steady hand, Perry delivered a bank of issues that as a society we are too often too comfortable not to talk about, too afraid and too weak to discuss. In one storyline, Perry lures us into date rape with comedic levity then craftily tosses us off a cliff into the shock and horror of its victims.
We know some of the people depicted, because some of them live next door, because some of them are mirrors images of ourselves. Look closely and what you will find is the story of a people living in bondage, some of them freed by death, some by life itself.
With every heart-wrenching theme, I knew Perry’s chase was over. If he and his cast do not experience the glory of a single Oscar nod, we will know something is amiss. This is no Precious. As good as Lee Daniels’ film was, there is no room for debate this time around.
For the record, I am nobody’s film critic. In an age when social networks like Facebook and “the Twitter” tend to determine the success or failing of films, professional critics often get lost in the wash. The Internet has delivered a newfound power to every day people who haven’t spent a moment studying film theory — myself among them.
I walked 632 steps back to my temporary quarters. (I counted them in an effort to dry my tears.) I carried with me a profound sense of sorrow, but also a heart of celebration.
I am black and I am a woman. Every day. I make no apology that now or ever. And I love, love my black man. Perry simply amplified my embrace — of myself and of my man. Tonight, I am holding on just a little bit harder, standing a bit taller. Because of him, I left the theater tonight wanting after no other skin.