Saturday, November 06, 2010

felt stuffed woman with no legs

I like to think critically about art and about humor. When something tickles, I laugh, and then I ask myself, "Why is this funny?" Because satire isn't magical or mysterious. It's sort of scientific. It relies on precision, timing and discomfort. It incorporates cultural references and prejudice. It exposes our secrets and gives us the permission to face and mock our psycho-political fatigue and fears. Like a tea kettle whistle, comedy is an alarm that allows us to (safely?) release the gauche or vulgar feelings we have boiling up inside. 

"For (Stuffed) Colored Girls" is a Funny or Die clip from Wayne Brady and it absolutely cracks me up. It's an over-the-top spoof of the seductive For Colored Girls movie trailer, à la Sesame Street.

Have you watched it yet? Hilarious, right? But why? 

One of the exciting things about the For Colored Girls movie is that it boasts the largest ensemble of black actresses I've ever seen on the big screen. Universal highs and woes - such as love, loss, betrayal and the fear of death - are explored through black women's bodies and voices. This is extraordinary. Rarer than it should be. Maybe even groundbreaking. The diverse representation of black women - young, older, thin, wider, sultry, meaner - is the reason I fell in love with Ntozake Shange's original (brilliant, bolder, better) play in the first place. 

Does the puppet-populated parody above undermine the presence of black female bodies? Why did the satirists decide to make black men the only real-flesh humans beings in the clip? Is their joke-violence easier to swallow because the "victims" are inanimate and "in on it?" Who is the implied puppet master? Tyler Perry? Lionsgate? Hollywood, at large?

The parody certainly hints at the melodrama of Perry's adaptation. I saw the film yesterday - an early afternoon matinee in Western Massachusetts. There were only ten other bodies in the darkened theatre. As far as I could tell, I was the darkest person in the room. I sat alone, closest to the screen. The manipulative sweeping and swelling of non-diegetic music made me tear up. The awkward hopscotch of the remixed text - from Perry's overwrought dialogue to Shange's luscious poetry - made me squirm in my seat. It was a treat to see so many soft-focus close-ups of some of my favorite brown-skinned actresses. It was a total nightmare to sit through a character's date rape scene ridiculously crosscut with black opera singers belting high-notes in high drag. A generous New York Times reviewer put it best: "Mr. Perry is, it goes without saying, a maximalist."

As a black feminist who studies pop culture, I felt it was my duty to watch For Colored Girls. Few mainstream movies attempt to tackle infertility, abortion, sexual assault, domestic violence, promiscuity, disease, infidelity and post-traumatic stress syndrome - all in a 134-minute sitting! For Colored Girls makes apparent the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality and spirituality. Moreover, we get the sense that, although there are points of connection in the ways we celebrate and struggle, "black women's lives" are wide-ranging. 


Still. 

I left the cinema feeling irritated that this historic feature film wasn't written or directed by someone with a surer hand. For Colored Girls may be Perry's best work to date but it is far from a masterpiece. I can only imagine what Julie Dash, any number of the Sisters in Cinema, or even Jonathan Demme might have done with this material. I wonder why Lionsgate bypassed Nzingha Stewart's version of the screenplay and if Shange ever felt compelled to adapt the play herself.

And I'm still thinking about stuffed dolls: the giddy relief they seem to bring us. Would the following (adorable) clip have over one million hits if the child was actual? Is our culture ready to love us for more than our disembodied, melodious voices? Is a poignant message easier to absorb when the colored girl speaking isn't a real girl at all?

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