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Black people need film-makers like Tyler Perry

TylerPerryMuch criticism is being heaped on Tyler Perry for what many see as his disappointing film version of Nzotke Shange’s landmark play For Colored Girls. But while he may be far from perfect, we desperately need Black filmmakers like him who are representative of the majority of us, writes Kola Boof.

13 December 2010

Right now a lot of ‘hate’ is being aimed at Tyler Perry by Black feminists who feel he destroyed Nzotke Shange’s landmark play For Colored Girls. While I was disappointed with Tyler’s movie version myself (mostly for the same reasons that writer Bassey Ikpi and Renee at Womanist Musings expressed disappointment), I need to make it clear that I could never hate what Tyler Perry does and the reason is this:

Since when in history have so many Black actresses ever been employed in films at the same time? He literally casts 12 to 20 Black female speaking parts in every movie he makes. This ranges from the “Star” to the small “Nurse”, “Bank Teller”, “Veterinarian” roles.

Perry’s movies show us non-stop images of beautiful Black women. To the contrary of what is often reported, there are also an awful lot of loving Black couples in Perry’s films.

Unfortunately, the villain of Perry’s movies is always an abusive Black man, usually dark skinned. This of course becomes all that anyone talks about—Perry’s so called hatred of Black men. In this latest film, For Colored Girls, for instance, there is only a single positive Black male portrayed in the film (Hill Harper). I found that problematic because I don’t feel that men should have been in the film period.

In my fantasy of Kola Boof’s version of For Colored Girls, would be a merged remake of two films: 1939’s The Women (all-female cast starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell) and from the 1970’s A Clockwork Orange.

I would have set the film in outer space with each Black woman being on a different planet: Lady on Red Planet, Lady on Purple Planet, Lady on Green Planet. The abusers would be sexualized Alien Monster Images (Half-Man muscle-bound negro-faced Sloths with flowing golden hair).

And from there I would have strictly used Nzotke Shange’s poems to tell this story of these Black Goddesses who at the end of my movie would converge on Planet Earth, swooping down in fits of colorful flight; defiant, wounded and willfully triumphant. They would all have “natural hair” and the final poem would show them walking down a city street looking like regular Black women survivors. Like the play.

No, Tyler Perry is not talented. No, he is not the best person to tell our stories. But the fact is, just that his art focuses on Black women and tries to half-way give us a public face (one that I like way better than BET’s hatred of black women)…I can’t completely betray his efforts with scornful hate and dismissal.

As Pearl Cleage said recently, if it were not for Tyler Perry, the book/play version of For Colored Girls would not currently be in the Top 10 on the New York Times Bestseller list and selling another million copies. Tyler Perry did that!

I suspect that his being presumed gay is partly why some Black women feel it’s OK to dismiss him and I know that his attack on the ego of Black male privilege is an even bigger culprit—as Black women are notorious for betraying people who actually love/defend us over the all elusive Black men who don’t give a shit about us or our condition.

For some reason, we as Black feminist critics forget that love and how it’s shown is not perfect. People show love the best they know how. And in Perry’s case, those who feel that Perry is simply exploiting Black women’s experiences need to seriously think about that.

Because I don’t feel that is what he does. I feel he is showing his love for us and the only hand he has for displaying that is his own hand; not ours. A lot of feminists get on my nerves when they expect people acknowledging us to be perfect.

On the streets, we stay supporting Kanye West, Piss Puffy, Kid Cudi, Michael Jackson…and what have they done really to create and perpetuate black female images in their art? Think about it.

Tyler Perry is not perfect or even very good at movie-making. But hell, he damn sure puts Black women first and these roles are hardly the worst ever—at least he has some strong beautiful Black women (who actually look Black) and they always have a happy ending.

As well, there’s usually a Black wedding at the end of Perry’s movies. Hokey or note, I can relate to that.

The majority of us lived through or later discovered the 1970’s Black exploitation films. We can live through Tyler Perry. His movies remind me of the absurdity yet truthfulness and “fun” of watching Superfly, Shaft, Coffy and Foxy Brown.

And from an artistic and social point of view, I thought those films were total trash. By watching these movies as a kid, I was supporting a pimp, drug dealers and all around Black sexist pimpology—things that I don’t appreciate or tolerate in my real life. So how in the hell am I going to hate Tyler Perry?

That’s what I have to say to fellow Black feminists.

If I had my way, it would be mandatory by law for Black American women and girls to be raised watching the films of Ousmane Sembene—the greatest Black filmmaker in history. By watching his feminist masterpieces Moolaade and Faat Kine or his epic ode to self-sufficiency, Guelaawar, I feel that Black American women would be imbued with superhuman power and a true understanding of their beauty and purpose—not America’s beauty and purpose.

Truly, for one to seek assimilation is the exact same as embracing enslavement or suicide. If you have to change your genetic structure to be accepted by folk—then that’s a bad sign. Thus I loved Ousmane Sembene for being the only Black filmmaker to give us that message.

No female filmmaker living, not even my beloved Julie Dash, has made such important and perfectly imagined films about Black women as Ousmane Sembene. As a womanist and artist, he is my personal Jesus Christ. I would literally not be alive if I had not found his films.

But clearly, what we need is for Black women to be the ones making movies about Black women. And let me go even further and state that we need authentic Black women and not Mulatto women to be the ones making films about Black women.

This is extremely important and never discussed by American Black women as they often pretend that “sympathetic and privileged” Polish-born part-black Jewel Odosky is going to relay the intricate nuances of what actual nappy-haired black colored women like India Arie have experienced.

In this new century, we are continually being divided by an array of different genetic looks that do not necessarily share the same experiences anymore—yet many Black women artists seem to be in denial about that.

For example—as children, my sister Spring, who could pass for White, was often baffled that my sister Tamara and I, both dark brown with Afro hair, did not want to go with her to the candy store on Good Hope Road. The Black men at the candy store showered Spring with loving attention and free candy because she had long silky hair and a milky complexion.

These same Black men were cold and dismissive towards me and Tamara. So Spring, a so-called “black child” had a totally different experience of being a “black” female than what we had. To her, there was nothing wrong with BET. Her color and hair texture separated her from Mother, Nana, me and Tamara, yet she never could see this. In her mind, she was just as Black as the rest of us.

So these new age differences are very important now in films and literary discourse as many of you have run across mixed women who just don’t understand what Black women are saying in our work.

This is why we so desperately need Black filmmakers who are actually representative of the majority of us. It is my dream to do that—to make films that tell the stories of actual black women’s real lives, dreams and triumphs.

In the meantime, I appreciate the people like Tyler Perry who at least make sure there’s a Black female presence in films. He is not perfect, but he feels for us.

Egyptian-Sudanese-American novelist and poet Kola Boof has been an agent for Sudan’s SPLA and was the National Chairwoman of the US branch of the Sudanese Sensitization Peace Project. She has written for television and her many books include, Flesh and the Devil, Long Train to the Redeeming Sin, Nile River Woman and Virgins in the Beehive. She blogs at Kola Boof. com

This article was first published at Womanist Musings

Image: Via Lionsgate


0 #1 Elena 2010-12-13 21:19
I agree that Tyler Perry is a much needed voice today, but I couldn't disagree more about your comments on For Colored Girls. I think it is a masterpiece of film making, a movie that every woman of all colors needs to see. When that monster let go of those children's hands I cried and there were shouts of horror throughout the theater. The things he depicts are things that happen to women of all colors. That he portrayed one good man of the handful that were in the film is a ratio that is about right for society in general. I think Tyler has a woman's heart like few who would go outside the Hollywood elite and dare to make films that reveal the true feelings of a woman's heart. All women need to see his films. It is the one place they won't get the Hollywood version of what is really going on. Tyler speaks to my heart and reminds me that if I don't take care of myself, no man is likely ever to do so either.

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