Grade: The border between C+ and B-
There were good, bad, and very ugly things about this film all of which I can’t unpack in this brief commentary (I need an essay to do that), however, I can’t dismiss this work as a piece of Tyler Perryness, though I had fully expected it to be when I pre-ordered the tickets online. The grade is what it is because there were a lot of things that just saved it, particularly Loretta Devine, the concept, the issues it raised and the conversations that it starts (even if the conversations are critiques).
Me, like most colored girls, have a deep desire to see ourselves reflected on the screen, except what this film offered was an uncomfortable view of ourselves on screen: a tortured, emotional, and deeply unsettling view of ourselves. As one of the movie-goers said as she walked out before the credits even began to roll, “That was not what I expected.” I hope she didn’t expect Sex in the City but with Black people…
Commentary (No detailed spoilers):
Loretta Devine, Phylicia Rashad, Michael Ealy, Kimberly Elise and Whoopi Golderburg were brilliant. Loretta Devine has done stage work and you could see it shine through wonderfully as her monologues rolled beautifully out of her pores. Whoopi gave her all, and I was not surprised in the least. I remember the way I felt watching The Colored Purple–Whoopi was able to climb inside the body of Celie and take you to Celie’s inner place with her. She took me to that place, and I was freaked out when I got there. Rashad seemed made for that role. I couldn’t think of anyone better. Michael Ealy was terrifying. And Kimberly Elise always taps into that sad and hurt place inside herself. She worked with the script she had which was ehh, but somehow made all the things that didn’t make it in the script come out in her body.
- I appreciated the camera staying still for serious moments and allowing the actresses to just act and not be saved by a convenient camera trick.
- Not that much make-up. The only person who was made all the hell up all the time was Janet, but her character called for it. For the rest of them, they were allowed to be just naturally beautiful.
- The movie dealt with some things that we rarely talk about in Black sexual or cultural politics. I appreciated it: Rape. Religious fanaticism. Abortion. The failure of the state to protect our children. Physical abuse. Sex. HIV/AIDS. Condoms. And Macy Gray. That’s right, we don’t talk about Macy Gray and we should.
- Trying to translate stage conventions onto the silver screen is difficult. You either have to scrap the stage convention and say it just won’t work, or you have to play some camera tricks which may come across as cheesy. I felt some moments were really cheesy.
- I thought Perry was trying too hard to make this made-for-stage project into a “film” though he kept these really interesting monologues they made for moments where I struggled to follow their importance. He could have just gone all the way there–like how musicals (Hairspray, Chicago, Across the Universe) are just musicals–not worrying about fitting the blockbuster film narrative.
- Though I understand that this movie wasn’t necessarily about men, why did they all have blah, or flat, roles? The only “good” Black man was Hill Harpers’ character and he was just kinda there.
- All the characters went through extremely traumatic experiences–the kind of traumatic where you need to see a therapist, or live for 25 years before you start to get over–but their healing seemed instantaneous. There was little done to show us how they got from one place to the other. They just “got it.” For at least 3 of them, the horror they faced was dramatized so much that a simple monologue wasn’t enough for me to believe that they’d gotten over that trauma. How they arrived at these moments of clarity and resistance did not correlate to the depiction of the horror they went through. It somehow seemed to perpetuate the “Myth of the Strong Black Woman“.
- The Down-Low: The film recycled the homophobic, unhelpful trope of the Black male on the DL, blaming him for the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Black “community.” I thought we’d dispelled that myth already?* Heterosexual people, when sleeping with multiple partners without using condoms, are just as culpable of spreading the virus. One woman behind me say, “Ewwww, I can’t listen. I’m covering my ears.” The woman next to me cringed saying, “That’s so nasty.” They were talking about this moment where one of the men was coming out to himself and his HIV positive wife that he enjoyed sex with men. Coming out is one of the hardest experiences that people face. It is a serious crisis in self and desire, and people are so homophobic and that’s what’s really disgusting. Is it any surprise why men stay in closet? It’s because they sit in a crowded movie theater and hear everyone in there say “Ewww” when a Black man is bearing his soul about a desire that is beyond his own comprehension.
- State Failure: There was a very horrific scene in the movie that was really brought about because the one person who represented the State’s Child and Protective Services FAILED. I mean it was an epic failure and it was not really dealt with at all. Why? Colored girls… we are failed by the very mechanisms that are supposed to protect us every day. I thought that this was such a crucial moment and it wasn’t even made an issue.
- The Audience Reaction: Instead of tears, instead of gasps, most of the people in the audience laughed and made insensitive jokes about what was happening on the screen or the actresses themselves. They were uncomfortable, and when most people are uncomfortable, they laugh. When you don’t know what else to do, when you’ve done all that you can, but can do nothing else but face yourself in the mirror, what do you do? You find something to distract from the reality of the situation–you go turn on Richard Pryor (1970s), you go watch Eddie Murphy’s Raw (1980s), you watch Martin or Living Single (1990s) or you watch Madea Goes to Jail: the Play (2000s). Laughter is Black people’s antidote for dealing with the stress of this world, unfortunately however, our antidote doesn’t actually solve the problems at hand. Trying to unpack them, or figure out what they might mean for you, your sisters, your brothers–good, bad, or ugly–is what will actually help us heal.
If you can stand to wait to see this movie for a couple of weeks, until the theaters aren’t packed, I would. It was hard to watch, and it was even harder to watch when I felt like I was surrounded by folks who weren’t there to be made uncomfortable, but were there to be “entertained.” Decompress afterwards too. And talk about how it really made you feel.
Lessons: Remember the “down-low” is a myth, thank God for Roe v. Wade, if you’ve been sexually assaulted, you need to heal; therapy is good for you, and religious fanaticism is dangerous.
* “Why does such a problem exist? No compelling evidence suggests that blacks have any special genetic susceptibility to HIV. The CDC offers a laundry list of reasons of why African American men and women have relatively high rates of HIV infection and AIDS. The two most convincing explanations on the list: poverty and sexually transmitted diseases. The 2000 U.S. Census found that one in four blacks lived in poverty, and studies clearly have shown a strong link between poverty and the risk of HIV infection. Poor people also receive lower-quality healthcare, which means they will often progress from HIV infection to AIDS more quickly. And the link to sexually transmitted diseases, which create open sores that facilitate the spread of HIV, is equally clear-cut: Blacks are 24 times more likely to contract gonorrhea and eight times more likely to get syphilis.” This excerpt is from Jon Cohen’s A Silent Epidemic: Why is there such a high percentage of HIV and AIDS among black women? published in The Slate. To view the whole article, click here.