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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Madea, Leave Us Alone!

I’d be lying if I said I was walking into this darkened theater unbiased. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t already have a definitive predilection towards Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide, When The Rainbow Is Enuf. I’d be lying if I said I was a die hard Tyler Perry fan. And lastly, I’d be lying if I told you I had high hopes for this film and it’s Oscar worthiness. Since I’m not a liar, allow me to tell you the absolute truth from the outset. I read Ms. Shange’s tome in grade school and every year for the past two decades since. I remember being riveted to the American Playhouse TV movie in 1982, featuring Shange with a cast that included Alfre Woodard, Tony Award winner Trazana Beverley, former principal dancer of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Sarita Allen, and an early performance by Lynn Whitfield. And finally, there is at least one female director on my wish list to bring this play to life: Kasi Lemmons (director of Eve’s Bayou).
 Preconceived ideals are my strong suit.

Things rarely work out according to plan, I worked hard to avoid reviews offered by critics who attended various early screenings nationwide. None of the above silenced the uneasy sensation dancing at the back of my mind at the idea that Tyler Perry, (he of the “gospel stage play”, cross dressing, wise cracking matriarch) would present a great work to the big screen. I cringed to think he would be shaping one of my favorite poems for a generation of young women who may (or may not) read the initial adaptation. I was concerned. I feared vignettes featuring heavily made up, yet tragically downtrodden colored girls. I feared melodramatic, heavy handed treatment of sensitive topics such as rape, abortion and domestic violence. I feared the voice of Madea smothering the words of the Ladies in Yellow, Red, Blue and trampling nuance by combining it with talk show psycho babble and reality show caricatures. I feared a dirge instead of a celebration amongst Women overcomers.

Again, in the interest of honesty and disclosure, there were stand out Oscar worthy performances. Anika Noni Rose, a cameo by Macy Gray, Loretta Devine and Phylicia Rashad breathe deeply into the lines Shange penned in the mid 70’s and give them weight, validity and life. Loretta Devine’s initial performance at the door of sometime lover “Frank” was delivered in a breathy nervous monologue meant to convey bravado filled courage, but came off as rushed. As the film progressed Devine’s pacing and intonation found perfection as she exclaims, “somebody almost walked off with alla my stuff!”. She recaptures her “stuff” as she transcends a desperate need for a barely there love, and we celebrate with her.

Without any assistance or guidance from you,
I have loved you assiduously for 8 months, 2 weeks, and a day. I been stood up 4 times, left 7 packages on your doorstep, 40 poems, 2 plants, 3 handmade notecards,
and I had to leave town to send them.
You call at 3 am in the morning on weekdays... charming, charming!
But you have been of NO assistance! I want you to know what this has been an experiment...
to see how selfish I could be.
To see if I could really carry on to snare a possible lover.
To see if I was capable of debasing myself for the love of another.
To see if I could stand not being wanted when I want to be wanted and I can not,
so without any further guidance or assistance from you,
I am ending this affair!

Anika Noni Rose’s ability to roll a multicultural dancer’s diaspora of joy at the fluid movements of her body bespeaks the definition of “owning” one’s self despite a wooden performance by Khalil Kain. As one of the few times when a smile is displayed in openness and hope, Rose allowed Shange’s dialect heavy poetry to become her own language. Gladly when she rolled the “R’s” strolling along Harlem streets, there was no affectation. We saw and joined her love of her own movement. The Lady In Yellow celebrates the roll of her hips, through merengue, salsa, stretching her own body to stand at full height she celebrates self (despite the end results) and we celebrate with her.

& poem is my thank-you for music
&i love you more than poem
more than aureliano buendia loved macondo
more than hector lavoe loved himself
more than the lady loved gardenias
more than celia loves cuba or graciela loves el son
more than the flamingoes shoo-do-n-doo-wah love bein pretty
oyeè neégro

te amo mas que te amo mas que
when you play
yr flute

Macy Gray’s role as backroom abortion “doctor” was absolutely chilling as it utilized her already raspy voice and notoriously lazy, world-weary drawl. An adjunct character, Gray appeared to consider and pour her whole self into each line before allowing it to escape her lips. And once released, her lines were inspected again, with her customary cock of the head and affirming chuckle. In a movie filled with gut wrenching scenes and tears, Gray’s quiet, almost introspective delivery, made me think she was talking to herself. She didn’t speak “at” me as the piece bespoke a woman alone, reminiscing on a more innocent time…and how that purity became jaded by day to day living. Haunting is not too strong a word.

Tessa Thompson also deserves an honorable mention in the opening sequence recounting the blush of virginity turned womanhood as she recounts “becoming woman” and this (amongst other areas) is where problems with Perry’s “adaptation” bleeds through. The women in Per’s world are punished for being women. His decision to splice and interplay monologues according to whim and “message” present a drastically altered view of what each poem can (and does) convey. Consider this: Thompson’s character travels from the blush of a mutual, enjoyable (if youthfully ignorant) sexual experience to pregnancy and abortion in short order and across the “rainbow” lines attributed to the initial poem. Rose’s dancer and her guarded glimmer of hope at new romance are diminished following an animalistic rape scene. Kimberly Elise and Phylicia Rashad pull double duty as nurturers, only to be rewarded by female dog epitaphs, beatings and infanticide.

My harshest criticism for this piece of work is for Whoopi Goldberg’s portrayal. An added character, Madea presents herself, sans wig and prosthetic breasts as a “cult” member replete with judgement steeped in sexual abuse pathos and moralizing. From the birth of her acting career, I’ve been a Goldberg fan. Her comedies, her ability to deliver (in obscurity such as The Telephone) endears me to her abilities as an actress, however, providing the fire and brimstone voice for Perry does her a distinct disservice. To be clear, Whoopi’s performance was equally stellar, but wholly unnecessary in this tome which appears intent on punishing Women for their audacity. What is the audacity in question? Being Woman, Black and celebrating it. Thandie Newton as the sometime indiscriminate, but “socially responsible”(she espouses condoms despite sleeping with married men) sex-a-holic doesn’t bear dissection except to say this. A woman will never be seen as a healthy sexual being without a tinge of judgement in Perry’s world. His decision to celebrate feminine sexuality through the pathos of a damaged woman speaks volumes about a patriarchal society designed to celebrate male conquest and female docility.

And as for the men in this “adaptation”…
There is no polite way to say this. Tyler Perry hates Black Men. It’s a common theme and quite Jim Crow of him, but it’s truly tiresome. The diminutive Hill Harper exists as the sole voice of a reasonable, hardworking, understanding Black Man, which is unreasonable to the point of ridiculousness. Omari Hardwick (the down low “brotha”), Khalil Kain (the rapist “brotha”), and Michael Ealy (the assaulting/murderous “brotha”) all serve as a catalyst for punishment and I have a problem with this portrayal. Ealy, beyond the other actors mentioned presents a complexity that allows me to appreciate the in actor, but leaves me cringing at the stereotype. He’s falls along the lines of Danny Glover as a “sympathetic Mr.” from The Color Purple until his climactic child-dangling scene.

My last bone of contention with Perry’s adaptation lies in his willingness to borrow themes from Gloria Naylor’s The Women Of Brewster Place. For the uninitiated, those who don’t remember and those who haven’t read Ms. Naylor’s work an entire scene was lifted and placed firmly in the scene featuring Rashad and Neal. Am I suggesting that a Matriarchal healing can only take place in new and interesting ways? No. But to lift an entire theme of ownership, redemption and Sister~love…I’m sorry Mr. Perry, you’ve failed me.

But, you haven’t failed your fans or the public in general. I realize and value your growth in this area, Tyler Perry. You know EXACTLY which heartstrings to pull, twinge, pluck and strum for dramatic effect. You realize on some level that someone needs to speak to the hurt of African American Women and apparently, you want them to speak loudly and in broad strokes. You desire their speech in fashion, artful make up, teary scenes, lines and shouts of indignation and I understand that. There is capital to be made from suffering. Suffering without resolve, a wound reopened, dissected and unclosed is a well spring. A caricature heaped with eloquence is often confused as art. A departure from your own overt voice is admirable…but sir, this was not your film. My heart aches for the celebration and I’m concerned that your work, will banish Elder Shange’s work to soap oprah  opera~esqe levels that fail to do it justice.
As if it were unclear, I’ll re-state my point. Tyler Perry doesn’t speak for my family or me. For the record “Madea”, my Grandmother prefers the title Granny and she’s not some mash up of Lawanda Page’s “Aunt Esther” character dipped in Gospel overtones. She’s a colored girl.
Like me.
And we’ve both had enough!

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