Madea's SCUM Manifesto: For Colored Girls (2010)

Posted by Charles Reece, March 6, 2011 09:26pm | Post a Comment
The conflict, therefore, is not between females and males, but between SCUM -- dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have free-wheeled to the limits of this `society’ and are ready to wheel on to something far beyond what it has to offer -- and nice, passive, accepting `cultivated’, polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy’s Girls, who can’t cope with the unknown, who want to hang back with the apes, who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by, with a big strong man to lean on and with a fat, hairy face in the White House, who are too cowardly to face up to the hideous reality of what a man is, what Daddy is, who have cast their lot with the swine, who have adapted themselves to animalism, feel superficially comfortable with it and know no other way of `life’, who have reduced their minds, thoughts and sights to the male level, who, lacking sense, imagination and wit can have value only in a male `society’, who can have a place in the sun, or, rather, in the slime, only as soothers, ego boosters, relaxers and breeders, who are dismissed as inconsequents by other females, who project their deficiencies, their maleness, onto all females and see the female as worm.

-- Valerie Solanas, S.C.U.M. Manifesto

If thine balls offend thee, cut them off. With his adaptation of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enough, Tyler Perry lets us know that he's a card-carrying, auxiliary member of SCUM. Regardless of Solanas' intent, Perry takes the word as an acronym for cutting up men -- in particular, black men. I'm not sure why Perry is so popular among black women, but his success surely suggests there's a serious disconnect, even animosity, between the distaff and staff halves of the black community. To 1995's Million Man March's suggestion that black men weren't living up to their moral responsibilities, Perry's For Colored Girls answers that women shouldn't expect them to, since morality isn't part of their nature. Masculine representation here is summed up by Judith Levine's list of misandrous stereotypes. With only one exception, men are cheats, rapists, incestuous pedophiles, cowards, wife-beaters, murderers, dimwitted poon-hounds, and/or dominated homosexuals. Solanas portrayed the last type in a relatively positive light ("faggots who, by their shimmering, flaming example, encourage other men to de-man themselves and thereby make themselves relatively inoffensive"), but Perry wouldn't take them off the target list, since trusting a gay man can turn deadly. The narrative conflict is that of the epigraph, women struggling to transcend the monstrous masculine.

Alice (aka White; Whoopie Goldberg) is the most dominated and purest of Daddy's girls. She's devoutly committed to God, the Holy Absent Father, and insists on trying to live by His law. Perpetually seeking absolution from whatever original sins He saddled her with, she lives a life of abstinence and penury, having to beg for change from strangers when her meager stipend runs out. The stipend comes from her dead father who left her elder daughter Tangie (Orange; Thandie Newton) in control of his estate lest the mother give it all to the Christian spin-off cult to which she belongs. But that's only the father's version. Tangie's a "slut" in chauvinist lingo -- using men as barely sentient dildos -- who fell into this life after being raped by her grandfather. What little control was bequeathed her might've been a sign of her grandfather's repentance, but was more likely a way of sticking it to his daughter one last time (Alice was "touched" by the old man, too). But, wait, it gets worse: Tangie is the result of her grandfather pimping her mother out to a white man when she was fifteen to better the chances for a light-skinned grandchild. If there's feminine sin here, it's in assuming the masculine will as her own. The daughter adopts the male gaze, seeing others as objects of either pleasure (the fetishized men) or property (ownership of her mother). The mother plays the proxy for eternal "male" judgment, sternly condemning and casting aside any woman, including her own daughter, for failing to live up to divine law. Their antagonistic relationship is the traumatic stain left by an originary battle of machismo, earthly versus heavenly. 

Caught between this dyadic struggle is Alice's other daughter, Nyla (Purple; Tessa Thompson), who plans on going to college, but first needs an abortion. Fearing mother's wrath, she turns to her wicked older sister for the cash. The teenage boy who impregnated her is, like all the other fathers in this family, long gone. And, of course, in this dilapidated microcosm of male abandonment (substitute 'man' for 'white' in 'white flight'), all abortions take place in back alleys. Quite literally. To get to the clinic, Nyla has to walk past junkies, whores and bums. Tangie sends her sister all alone to the same amateur abortionist that she had to endure as a teenager when forced into an abortion by Alice years before. The filthy clinic is borrowed from The Minority Report where Tom Cruise goes to have his eyes illegally replaced. Should Perry's mise en scène prove too subtle for the average Oprah viewer, he has his abortionist (Macy Gray) perform the illicit deed while drunk and smoking through patinated teeth. Girls should think twice before allowing that parasite into their bodies.    

As it turns out, much worse than the man's abandoning the woman to the emotional wreckage he leaves behind is his remaining present. The dust isn't allowed to settle: she can't pick up the pieces, because he's still taking her apart. 

Yasmine (Yellow; Anika Noni Rose) is Nyla's dance instructor, and begins her ordeal as a confident woman who's cautious of men after a bad breakup. Her current suitor is a gentle, handsome man of some undisclosed but obviously affluent and respectable vocation, who won't take no for an answer -- but in the good way, or so it seems. In Perry's world, male persistence is always violent. After this dude gets Yasmine to go on a first date -- where he is nothing but the most upstanding of gentlemen, not expecting as much as a kiss and even sending her flowers the next day -- he immediately strips upon seeing her for the second time, demanding sex. She's not ready, so he forces her to the kitchen floor, while the food she's preparing burns. Is this bestiality really the essence of man? The courtly behavior is nothing more than a mask for his sexual-violent impulses. 

Well, consider the stereotypical flipside of virile masculinity: Lathering on the melodrama, Perry adds to his rape and sizzling chicken montage shots of Jo (Red; Janet Jackson) and her neutered husband staring dead-eyed at some opera (Aaron Zigman's "La Donna in Viola"), which supplies the music for Yasmine's defilement. Putting aside whatever purchase Coppola bravado is supposed to have on the depicted rape, what's the point in linking, via the Kuleshov effect, the two men, a not-so latent gay with a not-so latent rapist? Jo is a dominatrix, a feared fashion editor who uses her ruthless business tactics to control her domestic situation, telling her husband what to wear, when to be home and to always answer his smartphone. The little bit of trust she does place in her "de-manned" husband turns out to be entirely unwarranted. As he explains in a later scene, his deceit isn't about escaping the matriarchal leash, for he isn't "really gay," but such total subjugation needs an occasional discharge, such as in another man's behind -- sort of like a fetish. Whether being a mama's boy queers him, or the queering makes him a mama's boy, the homophobia is obvious enough, as is its connection to the rape: if gentility isn't masking the desire to destroy femininity, it's masking a desire for other men. When the woman loosens her chastity to one of these bestial types (predator versus pet), she either winds up bruised in a hospital (if she's lucky) or with a positive diagnosis for HIV (if she isn't). 

According to Forbes' Celebrity 100 list, Perry earned $125 million in 2009, which is far cry from his pal Oprah Winfrey's $315 million, but actually more remarkable considering that he's far more encoded by race than she (I mean, just look at their respective audiences). It was for this reason that I decided to watch one of his films during Black History Month (unfortunately, I'm a bit late with my blog entry). Could I, a white boy from the South, bridge the racial divide to see what all the fuss is about regarding the most successful black director in cinematic history? According to the New York TimesManohla Dargis, my problems with the director's view might be dismissed as mere identity politics:
His enormous commercial success with a mainly black audience and the often ferociously hostile reviews from mostly white critics might seem symptomatic of an insurmountable racial divide. Black people love him and white people don’t get him, and that sort of thing, which might be somewhat true but ignores that another important dividing line runs along taste and not color. [W]hether you like Mr. Perry’s work may depend on your color or sex or love of boiling melodrama, ribald comedy, abrupt tonal shifts, blunt social messages, unforced talk about God and flourishes of camp, sometimes whipped together in one scene.
Now, I'm a huge fan of 50s social message films, women's weepies and, most importantly, the exploitation genre. And you can't be a fan of Samuel Fuller, Edward Dymytryk or Douglas Sirk without loving most of the hamfisted stylings Dargis mentions (Dymytryk's belligerent Christ in Concrete is the bellwether to prove one's debased bona fides). But what's crucially absent from her list is an appreciation of exploitation. That requires a fondness for belief content or, at least, rhetorical style that is not one's own and an ability to separate taste from agreement. As exploitation, For Colored Girls is great, destructive fun -- not as catastrophically brilliant as its soulmate Precious, but a real humdinger, eliciting more gut reaction than any European art film I've seen in the last few years. It's certainly more evil than I Stand Alone. This isn't, however, the way Perry's fans will or are supposed to take it. After all, it was Oprah and Perry who helped finance Precious, which they took to be a serious investigation of inner city life. Taking Perry seriously, likewise, requires an idiotic and loathsome ideology regarding class, gender and color, which I don't believe is reducible to one's own maladroit aesthetics or color.

Even amongst all the male-bashing, it's not too difficult to discern what conservative Christians (a patriarchal bunch) might love about For Colored Girls. Besides the shared distrust of homosexuality as a slithering evil intent on corrupting matrimony, there's the probative narrative against extra-marital sex, the dangers of which are repeated again and again. Except for Jo, who suffers due to a gay man tricking himself and her into marriage, all the other women's problems are the results of a sexual encounter while they were single. And, sure enough, one need look no further than the Christian review sites for some of the most positive critiques of the film: At Christian SpotlightBrian C. Johnson suggests it transcends race demographics, "speak[ing] to multiple audiences about strength in unity and the triumphant spirit that has taught women to survive horrible atrocities and inequalities throughout history." Justifying the specular violence (as moralizing Christians did with The Passion of the Christ), Focus on the Family's Paul Asay concludes: "Through its lens, we're thrust into Gehenna -- a place of filth and pain. And yet in its midst there is life and beauty, too. Much, I suppose, like what life can and sometimes does really look like in this fallen world." It is shared ideology which unites the praise from these, respectively, black and white critics.

The film's problems aren't reducible to my whiteness, but are instead due to treating its female characters as colored variations of some simplistic moral problem that the cloistered atmosphere suggests is endemic to the black population. Take as the last offending example the character of Crystal (Brown -- suggesting the supposedly most representative? -- Kimberly Elise): she's the mother of two small children, living with her physically abusive and mentally unstable boyfriend -- the biological father, an unemployed drunk who can't cope with his life after serving in the Iraq War. Crystal is Jo's assistant at the upscale magazine, but for some reason (exigency of plot) resides in a dangerous Harlem ghetto (which is where the majority of the ladies live, regardless of economic status). Because of the pummeling, Crystal begins to slip up at work. After Jo drives Crystal to her apartment to retrieve important documents that the latter left behind because of her morning abuse, the former becomes aware of her employee's domestic trouble. The boyfriend beats Crystal some more while Jo waits in the car, and then decides to dangle his children out of the window. Janet Jackson has seen this before, but these kids aren't so lucky as her nephew, and fall to their death. In terms of plausibility, none of this makes a lick of sense. That's because the characters aren't flesh and blood, but game pieces, used to represent Perry's social agenda. Regarding the way Lady Sings the Blues changed the impetus behind Billie Holiday's use of heroin from actually being influenced by a lover to a sign of social oppression, James Baldwin wrote: 

The situation of the white heroine must never violate the white self-image. Her situation must always transcend the inexorability of the social setting, so that her innocence may be preserved: Grace Kelly, when she shoots to kill, at the end of High Noon, for example, does not become a murderess. But the situation of the black heroine, to say nothing of that of the black hero, must always be left at society's mercy: in order to justify white history and in order to indicate the essential validity of the black condition.
-- The Devil Finds Work, p. 117

In other words, Perry's scoring points, not telling a story. Minus the maleficent intent, a similar function can be seen in the way so many films involving gays have to say something about AIDS (as already mentioned, a cliché that the present film repeats), even if they're purportedly character studies (e.g., Longtime Companion). The characters aren't allowed to exist just as characters (the way white heteros often are). The black men represent varying degrees of savagery and the black women represent various types of plight brought on by said savagery.  

As an antithesis to his thesis, the remaining women, being better adjusted (but not completely free of male infestation), serve as guides to the gynocentric utopia. Kelly (Blue; Kerry Washington) is a child welfare worker assigned to Crystal's case. She's married to the one decent guy, a cop who discovers Yasmine's rapist and is surely only presented as an exception to prove the rule. Kelly wants children of her own, but can't because of contracting an STD from a former boyfriend. Juanita (Green; Loretta Devine) is a sex ed teacher who is there at the right time to counsel Jo about how she might still have a fulfilling life with HIV (in case the audience doesn't have MTV). Juanita has a two-timing boyfriend to provide drama to her storyline. And, finally, there's Gilda (Gray; Phylicia Rashad), who's the maternal guiding force at the central apartment building. It's not clear that she's ever had much of a need for a man (no Cliff Huxtable), so she's the spiritual destination to which the rest of the female cast is heading, and away from the repressed motherhood represented in Alice. Perry's self-mutilation is complete when the women get together for a Wiccan-styled party to celebrate the destruction of the demonic male energy. Alice, of course, can only reject it as the work of the Devil and leaves. The rest share stories about the evil men do and come in for a group hug.

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For Colored Girls (1), Tyler Perry (3), Misandry (1), Feminism (18), Black History Month (134)