Quentin Tarantino Presents For Colored Girls: Or the Myths Behind the Box Office Defense of Tyler Perry’s Adaptation

by Guest Contributor Sofía Quintero


Lately I find myself wondering what might have been Quentin Tarantino’s approach to cinematizing Ntozake Shange’s seminal choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

Once he had gotten over the initial shock of being offered the job, I can imagine Tarantino signing up for the challenge.   Known for penning screenplays driven by crisp dialogue and characters with quirky names (Reservoir Dogs, anyone?), he could have found an immediate albeit superficial connection with the source material. Since Tarantino is also an aficionado of Black cinema circa the time of the play’s original production, I’d bet he would have pursued a gritty 70s aesthetic and forgone imposing contemporary settings and storylines. And let’s face it – since the race and gender politics of his films are usually a muddle of contradictions, he might not have done any worse than Tyler Perry with regard to Black representation.

I mean, if the job of adapting For Colored Girls was not going to an African American woman, might as well as given Quentin Tarantino a shot at it.

Or Martin Scorcese. Or Steven Spielberg. Or Christopher Nolan.

You’re kidding, right?

Yes and no. Almost one month after its release, the blogosphere remains abuzz with equally strident critiques and defenses of Perry’s treatment of the Black feminist literary classic. One particular defense of Perry has inspired my absurdist train of thought: had not Perry been attached to write and direct For Colored Girls, a major studio would not have financed the film. The argument further implies that he guaranteed box office success that would otherwise evade the project if it were even made, stunting future writing and directing opportunities for other African American filmmakers.

This argument rests on several assumptions that keep Black cinematic representation so stagnant. To compel the film industry to take both the business and politics of our representation seriously enough to increase and diversify the stories it produces, we must reconsider them. Perry’s adaptation of For Colored Girls should urge us to question three assumptions in particular.

#1: The community needed For Colored Girls to be a major studio picture.

Anyone remotely familiar with my work knows I am a major proponent of infusing progressive sociopolitical ideas into unapologetically commercial entertainment.  My overall disappointment in For Colored Girls (some of which can be heard in my interview with Joan Morgan by Dr. Mark Anthony Neal) and this specific defense of Perry’s involvement reminded me of another vision I have: a day when there’s an Angelika in every ‘hood.  Or do not urban, working-class people of color deserve to have art house theaters in their communities?  The idea that such folks can’t appreciate never mind support films independently produced and distributed outside the studio system is elitist given that they have yet to be given the opportunity to prove otherwise. Especially when you consider that some of the more interesting (even if not progressive) depictions of Black life have not been financed by major studios nor screened at multiplexes.

And for those who champion having representations of Black life that crosses over to White audiences, such moviegoers are far more likely to support a critically-acclaimed, low-budget, character-driven independent feature. They rarely pack the stadium seats at the nearest AMC theater for a “Black” drama. Rather the liberal White folks who are willing to spend time and money on our cinematic representation are usually frequenting small theaters with names like the Rialto to see joints that screened at Sundance or Cannes. Regardless of who wrote and directed it, this is the approach that I believe would have done Shange’s play the most justice, both artistically and financially.
Perry generates profits for Lionsgate, in large part, because his films are relatively inexpensive to make.  Costing approximately no more than $20-million to produce, his movies have a low financial hurdle to clear. (And one must wonder what percentage of his budgets goes to pay Perry to write, director, produce and occasionally act.) Had For Colored Girls been executed as an independent feature i.e. made at half the cost of a Tyler Perry Production (as was Lee Daniels’ $10 million adaptation of the novel Push into the film Precious), its profit margin – not to mention its prestige – could have been much greater.

2: We needed the Tyler Perry fan base to make For Colored Girls successful at the box office.

The assumption that the film had to be a studio picture automatically entails that the movie had to generate major profits.  In addition to recouping the costs of producing a picture, a studio also expects that box office receipts reimburse its investment in marketing it. (Alas, the amount allocated for marketing is never included in a film’s reported production budget and is rarely revealed.) Still a film’s first three days in theaters remains the industry’s primary measure of both its director and stars’ ability to sell enough tickets to get a return on its investment, and therefore warrant entrusting this talent with future productions.

Enter Tyler Perry and with him the argument that an African American woman should not have helmed the picture because one has yet to command the opening weekend ticket sales to make investment a studio’s worthwhile. Even those who don’t care for Perry’s fare believed and conceded to his defenders that Kasi Lemmons, Darnell Martin et al did not possess the box office pull to entice a major studio’s backing. All of us, critics and fans alike, doubted that lovers of the 35-year old play were plentiful enough and so we also needed Perry’s diehard followers to flock to see For Colored Girls in order for it to succeed.

We all were wrong.

Yes, in the simplest terms, given that the film reportedly cost only $21 million to make, opening weekend ticket sales of roughly $19.5 million render it a success.  And in fairness to Perry, this performance is on par with that of most of his films. But let’s be honest.  Those who concluded that he was the choice to helm For Colored Girls to box office success had not set our sights this low. We weren’t hoping for the modest box office receipts of films like I Can Do Bad All By Myself or Why Did I Get Married? We were fantasizing an opening weekend more aligned with Madea Goes to Jail which also originated as a play, opened at $41 million, scored Perry his first appearance in the number one slot and held it for two weeks. Perry’s defenders were excited over the idea of Madea’s stans turning out in droves to support Perry then reading Shange’s seminal play, and they wanted skeptics to get excited, too.

Theirs was an understandable desire – a beautiful hope even – but an unrealistic expectation. While I never expected the film to deliver Madea numbers, its showing surprised even me.  Perry’s base – the ones who consistently buy $20-plus million in ticket sales on opening weekend even when Madea is not on the bill – plus the multigenerational and diverse fans of the written and staged choreopoem should have generated higher receipts.  According to Box Office Mojo, 19 per cent of For Colored Girls viewers were not Black. This tells me that Madea’s fans didn’t show up for Perry’s colored girls, handing him his second lowest opening weekend after Daddy’s Little Girls. (I’ll leave it someone else to ruminate on the possible implications on that coincidence.)
#3: Perry’s success creates opportunities for other African American filmmakers.

This is a freestanding assumption about the industry’s general regard for filmmakers that are not White that has yet to be proven whether the filmmaker is Tyler Perry, John Singleton or Spike Lee.  As often as it’s slung to shame critical members of underrepresented communities to support fare they find uninteresting if not outright problematic, there’s just no evidence that the film industry actually operates on this principle. If this were the case, we would have a bankable African American female director on the set by now.

On the contrary, the story of how Tyler Perry became attached to For Colored Girls shows just how unfounded this assumption is. Or more like the non-story. Not only had critically acclaimed music video director Nzingha Stewart optioned the rights and drafted a screenplay, she also succeeded in attaching Angela Bassett, Sanaa Lathan and Alicia Keys to attract major studio interest.  Only six months after Lionsgate announced the project and named Stewart as writer and director, it released a statement that Perry would assume those duties with no explanation for replacing her.*

Stewart received credit as executive producer For Colored Girls in a corporate move that strike me as at once conciliatory and patronizing. After all, personnel changes that occur for innocuous reasons are quite common, and studios are quick to reveal them to assure fans that their anticipation will not be disappointed. Even less than amicable partings on “mainstream” films (read: with White casts and crews) are attributed publicly to “creative differences.” In any event, some explanation is offered. But Lionsgate, Perry and even Stewart have dodged the question why the African American woman who brought the project to the studio, had packaged it well enough to get consideration and was granted initially the opportunity to realize that attractive vision was replaced by Perry. Of course, we don’t know what material compensation or future opportunities Lionsgate offered her, but given how the typical woman of color filmmaker tends to write/direct a feature every five, six years, I would be hard to convince that these plus the credit she received (which she had already earned) are commensurate with the loss of what was arguably a passion project.  A bird in the hand…

But never mind that. The fact the project did not originate with Perry when his juggernaut has been fully based on his own material is all we need to know to bust open this assumption.  His immense power and privilege in Hollywood shut a door that Stewart had worked diligently toward and succeeded in opening for herself, punto final.

I’m still waiting for proof that a rising tide lifts all boats in the mainstream film industry.  From where I sit, the opposite is true.  The powers that has yet to read Tyler Perry’s commercial viability as a call to produce more films by and for Black people.  Rather they narrowly interpret his popularity as a demand for more of Perry’s work and his work alone. How many other African American media makers release two features and have two TV shows on the air in the same year?

The industry’s penchant for hedging its bets with a handful of talent of color did not begin nor has yet to end with Tyler Perry. The tremendous success of straight-to-video hustlers-in-the-‘hood movies in the DVD market, for example, has yet to make an executive think, “Maybe if we offered some romantic comedies and psychological thrillers to our slate next year, we would make even more money.” Instead he greenlights even more hustlers-in-the-‘hood flicks.  Nor is this mindset confined to popular film as the publishing industry’s street lit explosion and practically every genre of commercial music dominated by African Americans illustrates. Yet many of the same people who make impassioned arguments against the dominance of street lit at Barnes & Noble at the expense of other African American stories are blind to the same phenomenon at work in the film industry.

Indeed, the saddest thing about the persistence of this unproven assumption is our complicity in it. As much as some of us may preach the gospel of supporting our filmmakers on opening weekend, where we the weekends Cadillac Records, Something New and Talk to Me – all studio-backed pictures written and/or directed by Black women – were released?  And when given the names of Julie Dash or Sanaa Hamri as alternative directors for For Colored Girls, too many responded, “Who’s that?” with no consideration that their unawareness was more part of the problem than a case in point in their defense of Tyler Perry. Clearly, an adamant supporter of African American cinema at the box office could stand to make a diligent effort to identify all the filmmakers who need this support and not place all their bets on one voice. If we are unwilling to bother, we can hardly expect a White studio executive with her eye on the bottom line to do the same.

This is not about Perry’s gender or talent although those things are fair game and continued to be discussed.   But when we unpack the assumptions on which the argument rests, to insist that he was the best option to write and direct For Colored Girls because he has proven to be a box office draw is to conclude essentially not only (1) aesthetic and sensibility are irrelevant but also (2) they have no implication for commercial success. If that’s the case, should we ever hear that Oliver Stone is on the shortlist to write and direct Native Son or that James Cameron was tapped to adapt The Bluest Eye, let’s rock with it. After all, they both have far better opening weekend track records than Tyler Perry.

*Editor’s Note: Check out this great interview over at Shadow and Act with Nzingha Stewart for more information on the Tyler Perry situation. – LDP