A little more than three weeks before “For Colored Girls” was set to debut, filmmaker Tyler Perry took to his website to make something clear: “You don’t have to be a colored girl to be able to relate to and enjoy this movie.”
In case anyone missed that memo, some of the actresses have echoed Perry’s sentiment as well as the film gears up to open nationwide Friday.
In a Q&A on the site ComingSoon.com, actress Thandie Newton — who plays the promiscuous Tangie in the film — explains that for her, the content is more “a reflection on humanity than on the black experience.”
Newton went on, “I think it definitely speaks about universal issues, themes and so on. That for sure is part of its strength and what we hope is that it’s not just for colored girls, it’s not just for colored anybody, it’s for humanity.”
Newton’s co-star Anika Noni Rose, who portrays dance instructor Yasmine, said the same in a conversation with Cleveland, Ohio’s The Plain Dealer, expressing a hope that people won’t take the title literally.
“The issues are so universal,” she said. “We’ve all had those feelings and the emotions that color them. I also think there are messages for everyone. Men should be seeing this movie.”
It’s not so often that you find that kind of footnote attached to a film — since when does a moviegoer need to be alerted that they’re welcome at the movies? — let alone one of Perry’s.
But this also isn’t your standard Perry fare.
Starring a cadre of some of the most acclaimed actresses of color — the cast also includes Phylicia Rashad, Kimberly Elise, Tessa Thompson, Loretta Devine, Janet Jackson, Macy Gray, Whoopi Goldberg and Kerry Washington — Perry’s film is based on the Obie award-winning play, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” as source material. This, coming from a filmmaker known for writing, directing, producing and acting in his some of his other more commercially successful, critically underwhelming dramas and comedies.
“For Colored Girls” is an instance of Perry switching it up as a director and screenwriter. The film also carries the potential to switch up his audience — if strong word of mouth and reviews can push past some of the trickier parts of how moviegoers make sense of what is “for them” at the box office.
The film in general is getting “a lot of dialogue, and I think that stems from how effective the marketing campaign is,” says BoxOffice.com editor Phil Contrino. “I’m really impressed with Lionsgate and how vibrant and alive the marketing materials are. The trailer is punchy and very dramatic, and the posters are beautiful, full of color, artistic and designed well.”
The potential bias then “starts with the title because on the surface, that’s the first thing that people react to,” he added.
While Melissa Silverstein, who runs WomenandHollywood.com, a website dedicated to news and information about women in the film industry, said she believes the idea of this film being “only for black women goes back to why you would never say ‘Wild Hogs’ is only for men.” She added that when a movie is seen as something “other” than the norm — a cast this big filled only with actors of color isn’t a regularity in Hollywood — the idea becomes “that must be for someone else, not for me.”
“When people are making decisions about what movies they want to see, they’ll base it on what people are saying to them, and it’ll be based on their own personal connections,” Silverstein said.
It’s a reality that isn’t lost on moviegoers, either. Carlos Moore, 29, a cinephile from Virginia Beach, Virginia, said he isn’t deterred by the title or the proposed subject matter and plans to see the movie. Yet he too said he has wondered how Perry will reach nonwomen of color with a movie explicitly about women of color. “The way it’s been marketed, the average person might take from the trailer that it’s just about the different struggles of women in the movie,” he said.
Danielle Elwood, a 25-year-old mother of two (with a third on the way), said a trailer commercial for the movie grabbed her attention while watching a recent episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” She watched the extended trailer online and joked on Twitter that she’s “probably one of the only whiter than white chicks that will be going to see ‘For Colored Girls.’ ” But she added she wouldn’t think twice about it if that were the case.
“It pulled me in because it’s so much of what isn’t spoken about today,” Elwood said. “It’s the kind of things that people would want to brush to the side, and it seems that Perry is saying that this needs to be thrown back into the forefront.”
Variety film critic Peter Debruge said he thinks it’ll be interesting to see how Perry’s latest venture will shake up notions of audience demographics — and of course, the filmmaker’s in particular.
“Perry is an interesting island unto himself because he comes to the movies — this is the 10th major feature with Lionsgate — basically with a built-in audience off the theatrical plays he was doing,” Debruge said.
As a result of those loyal moviegoers, Perry has grossed a little more than $481 million at the box office since “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” in 2005, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
And that’s without reaching viewers such as Josh Hylton, a Washington-based film buff who hadn’t seen a Perry film — until he caught the screening of “For Colored Girls,” enticed by reports of Oscar buzz and strong performances.
“I’m a 23-year-old white male, and his movies just don’t interest me,” Hylton admitted. “It’s not something that I can relate to.”
And with a movie such as “For Colored Girls,” “it’s easy to think it’ll be about that,” he added, “but it wasn’t. The things that happen in the movie happen to all women — it surprised me that it was more about being a woman than anything.”
The thing about Perry, Debruge said, is that he knows his audience well and creates for them first. The filmmaker has told him that this audience has “stood by him faithfully and they were his priority. And by the way — not all black moviegoers are in Perry’s audience. It’s almost like this category of moviegoers that didn’t go to movies at all before. It’s more like black theatergoers who became black moviegoers,” Debruge said.
What then could open the box some may try to put this movie in? Critics say one word: Quality.
The issues presented are heartbreaking and heavy — rape, abuse and back-alley abortions are among the subjects touched on — rendering the movie a tougher sell for a Friday night out, said Trey Ellis, who teaches film at Columbia University and also penned the teleplay for “Good Fences.”
But Ellis said filmmakers don’t have to change stories to make them more widely accessible.
“It’s always important to be as specific and as true as possible,” Ellis said. “If they see ‘Steel Magnolias,’ and it was [a group of] women and you don’t really know where they are, it wouldn’t have any flavor to it. You do need to be as specific as possible. Some things catch fire like ‘Precious’ did, or ‘Boyz N the Hood.’ It starts with a smaller group and then expands from that.”
With “For Colored Girls,” “there’s a real awareness. Nonblack women or women who don’t remember the play will wait for reviews and word of mouth and will say, ‘I gotta see this,’ ” Ellis said. “Or, if something becomes a cultural phenomenon, they decide they have to see it because they want to know what everyone else is talking about. And that will depend on the execution.”