Tyler Perry gets serious with new image, new film
Tyler Perry — who writes, directs, produces and frequently stars in his films — has a reputation as a one-man schlock factory. That may be about to change with his new image and new film "For Colored Girls." It's based on material from "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," Ntozake Shange's seminal play about race and gender.
The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — Is Tyler Perry capable of highbrow cinema? The studio behind his 10th movie is determined to make audiences and Oscar voters look beyond his track record and answer yes.
Perry is the most successful black filmmaker ever. His nine pictures — from the comedic romp "Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion" to the melodramatic "Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?" — have brought in over $530 million at the North American box office. He also has an enormous business in stage shows and two television series on TBS.
But Perry — who writes, directs, produces and frequently stars in his films — also has a reputation as a one-man schlock factory. His movies are reviled by many critics, who complain that his original source material panders and stereotypes, while his directing is sloppy and unsubtle. Now comes "For Colored Girls," an attempt by Perry to make a radical turn toward the art-house crowd.
Set for release by Lionsgate on Nov. 5, "For Colored Girls" is based on source material as credible as it comes: "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," Ntozake Shange's seminal play about race and gender, which became a sensation during its run at the Public Theater in 1976 (and after that on Broadway).
The film is rated R, a first for Perry, whose previous pictures have all aimed at a religious audience. The starring actresses (who included Phylicia Rashad and Whoopi Goldberg) are of a caliber rarely seen in Perry's work.
Perhaps most telling, Lionsgate is not selling "For Colored Girls" as a Tyler Perry film, even though he directed it and adapted it for the screen. Perry's name — typically trumpeted from the rooftops in marketing materials — is noticeably underplayed in the film's promotional campaign, lightly written on billboards and buried on forcoloredgirlsmovie.com.
Instead Lionsgate is trying to position "For Colored Girls" as a work of art. The final poster for the film, released last week, is a nod to Piet Mondrian's grid paintings, and the ads on billboards and bus shelters go for a sharply contemporary feel, blending graffiti with portraiture.
The centerpiece of the studio's "For Colored Girls" marketing campaign is a series of filmed cast portraits, which run about four minutes on continuous loop and will be exhibited on high-definition television screens at Lehmann Maupin, a New York gallery, until Wednesday. The portraits are also viewable at forcoloredgirlsgallery.com.
Tim Palen, Lionsgate's co-president for marketing, shot the portraits on 35-millimeter film. He said the project was inspired by the work of Robert Wilson, the avant-garde stage director who has filmed so-called living portraits of celebrities like Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr.
There are eight "For Colored Girls" portraits, one for each of the film's principal actresses. They depict the subjects alive but barely moving; artful lettering appears over parts of the screen. In one, Janet Jackson, who plays Jo, a businesswoman who has willed herself to forget her tough upbringing, is perched dramatically on a chair and appears immobile except for blinking eyes.
"A recording of Janet Jackson breathing for four minutes should be in the Smithsonian as far as I'm concerned," Palen said. "The goal is to immediately communicate to people that this is a different kind of film for Tyler."
For his part Perry is playing the recluse — perhaps taking a page from Mo'Nique, who refused to participate in the traditional Oscar race last year for her role in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." (She won best supporting actress anyway.) Perry declined to be interviewed for this article, and his publicist said it was unlikely that he would be speaking much in support of "For Colored Girls" in the weeks ahead.
In an interview with National Public Radio in March, Perry addressed the skepticism that greeted his decision to tackle Shange's play, which has become a staple in college feminist studies courses and is widely seen as influencing a generation of spoken-word poets and performance artists.
"I think they have every right to be shocked," he said. "And I've even seen outrage: 'How dare you touch this? We don't want this to be this way."' He added, "Rest assured that I'm going to stay very true to what Ntozake's done."
In the same interview he said he was not particularly enamored of the work at first. "I finally started paying attention to it, and I was like: 'Wait a minute. Whoa, whoa. This stuff is great.' "
Did Shange (whose full name is pronounced en-toh-ZAH-kee SHAHN-gay) have any qualms about Perry's adapting her play? "I did," she said in an interview. "I had a lot of qualms. I worried about his characterizations of women as plastic." Of the completed film Shange said, "I think he did a very fine job, although I'm not sure I would call it a finished film."
Lionsgate's production notes for the film quote Shange as saying: "I'm grateful Tyler chose my work. My readers need to see it."
How well "For Colored Girls" will fare at the box office is anyone's guess. With $63 million in ticket sales, "Precious" was a hit. But that film had enormous support from critics. Early reviews for "For Colored Girls" have been less kind, with Variety calling Perry's work "more inauthentically melodramatic than ever" and The Hollywood Reporter deeming it "a train wreck."
The broader reception will most likely turn on how nimbly Perry approached Shange's work, which is a collection of 20 poems that identify characters only by colors (yellow, purple and so on). Perry gave the characters names and wrote dialogue and scenes to pull the poems into a more cohesive narrative.
"Since most of Tyler's films started as plays, he was uniquely qualified to adapt this work," said Paul Hall, a "For Colored Girls" producer. "When we initially read the draft of the script, you would see the poems there, and you would think, 'OK, the narrative is going to stop, and we'll have a poem.' But Tyler had a deeper vision." Hall added, "The film has a '70s feel to it, a European feel."
Lionsgate has high hopes that mainstream audiences will turn out for the film, citing a severe shortage in the marketplace of movies showcasing ethnic casts and stories. In addition the studio thinks "For Colored Girls" is the type of movie that can turn into a must-see for black women, along the lines of "Waiting to Exhale," which sold over $121 million in tickets in 1995 (after adjusting for inflation), and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," which brought in about $64 million in 1998.
If Perry yearns for artistic credibility, there is evidence beyond this one risky venture. Last year he lent his name to "Precious," the grisly tale of an abused Harlem girl, as an executive producer to make that film more marketable. In 2008 Perry, whose filmmaking operation is based in Atlanta, founded an art-house banner called 34th Street Productions. "For Colored Girls" is the first release.
"It marks him moving beyond entertainment and into art," said Thandie Newton ("Crash"), who plays Tangie, a sharp-tongued bartender. "To have a man of esteem and power honor women in this way is impressive and necessary."