I got 500 words into the first draft of this when I realised I wasn’t getting to the point; I’m tired of seeing black women suffer on TV and in film. All good characters have to go through some sort of hell to overcome and conquer in the end but the hell black women traverse on screen feels a little more fiery, a little more brimstoney than the hell reserved for other women.
My best friend Florie and I went to see For Coloured Girls after church at The Ritzy when it came out and I remember the sound of us wailing. Not crying gently and silently as is expected in a cinema but sobbing loudly in each other’s arms as we saw our cinematic heroes raped and both physically and mentally abused on screen. A man in a nearby row took umbrage to our grief, incapable of understanding that this wasn’t an event we rarely experienced; black women in film are always portrayed as magical beings who any and all injustice can be inflicted against. He wanted us to be quiet so he could enjoy the film, but we cried and wrung our souls dry because there was nothing for us as young, black women to enjoy in that space. The final scene with all the women convened on the roof hugging each other was not enough to help us overcome the violence we endured during that 133 minutes. Tyler Perry is a master in the art of the black woman’s pain in film.
For Coloured Girls is based on Ntozake Shange’s 1976 play For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf and it is a seminal piece of art. But my question is why? Why did Tyler Perry feel the need to adapt this harrowing play now? On whether the film was “for coloured girls” only, Anika Noni Rose responded by saying “We've all had those feelings and the emotions that color them. I also think there are messages for everyone.” And that’s fair, rape, abortion, promiscuity are universal themes, but my problem is black women are so rarely portrayed on TV and film and when we are we suffer a level of gender and racial violence that feels worse because that is the only time we are allowed on screen- when we are suffering. I understand the desire to want to portray this story in particular on the big screen but Tyler Perry is obsessed with the sufferation of black women. For Coloured Girls isn’t the only example of Perry revelling in BW’s pain; Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Good Deeds, Why Did I Get Married Too are just some of the films in which Perry takes it upon himself write, produce and direct our hurt.
In his 60 minutes interview responding to Spike Lee’s criticism of the Madea character, Perry responds “It's attitudes like that, that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us.” I have no problem with Madea, my problem is that while it is true that we need story tellers who will be brave enough to portray black women on the silver screen, for heavens sake we need some variety. Tyler Perry’s approach to black womanhood would have those on the outside looking in believe that all we are is pain and strife with brief moments of brevity. Tyler Perry is incredibly successful, his films break records and he does so because he, and he alone, caters to the underrepresented, not because his portrayals of black womanhood are accurate.
Bar Jennifer Hudson and Whoopi Goldberg, every other black woman Academy Award winner played a slave, a maid or a waitress. It is exhausting. I’m tired. These stories are valid, they matter, they are important but when they are the only spaces black women are allowed to occupy in front of the camera it has an effect on the way black women feel about themselves and people feel about black women. Things are changing, now we have directors and super producers like Ava Duvernay, Mara Brock Akil, Shonda Rhimes and Amma Asante we are slowly (so very slowly) starting to see a change in the type of stories we see about black women. Over the next 5 - 10 years, I'm excited to see what the film and television landscape will look like. There is a stark contrast between the stories black women tell about black women and those black men tell about black women.
If you haven't seen Set It Off just consider the paragraph before as my conclusion because there are major spoilers ahead! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
When I was younger, Set It Off was one of my favourite films but now I find it hard to watch. Vivica Fox, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Kimberly Elise are superb in the F Gary Gray directed masterpiece, they give Oscar worthy performances but my soul struggles to re-suffer Cleo, Frankie and Tisean being gunned down. At the end of Thelma and Louise we don’t get to see their convertible crash into the jagged rocks waiting for them at the bottom of the ravine. That courtesy is not extended to the women in Set It Off. They made sure we saw them take their last breaths, pay in kind with their lives for the money they stole trying only to better their lives. I’m tearing up a little bit remembering Frankie turning to run from the police and being shot in her back. It’s not fun for me and that’s what the movies are supposed to be. I watch films as a form of escapism not to be reminded the suffering society attribute to my gender and race. Being a black woman to me is a joy, a privilege and an honour. It can also be painful, but I laugh more than I cry and I look forward to not only seeing more films representing black women but also representing the diversity of our experience.
What do you think?
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