The Experiences of Black Women in For Colored Girls (2010)
By Natalie Walter
Trigger Warning: This essay discusses prolicide, racism, domestic violence, rape, and abortion
Watching a film like For Colored Girls (2010) that is centered on the Black woman’s experience can be heartening for anyone. These women’s lives are complex and filled with struggle for their mere existence. Their relationship with themselves and the Black men in this film adds insight into how they navigate the world.
When I came across this movie, I knew immediately it was the film I wanted to write on, even before I watched it. It was the perfect combination. I would be learning more about the Black experience while still being able to connect on some level with the experiences of being a woman (I am a white woman). Centering on the lives of ten Black women, we can see how their intersecting identities and intertwined lives lead to a conclusion not of changing the world but of finding sisterhood and self-compassion.
While the film focuses heavily on Black women, we must examine their counterparts to help us understand what has shaped them into the people they are: Black men. All ten women have suffered trauma at the hands of men, mostly Black men. When we try to understand Black men and their abuse, we must be careful that we do so holistically. We must be careful as we do not essentialize their behavior and conclude that these are natural traits or that this is the way things are. Instead, we look at the experiences, traumas, and social/material conditions that shaped these men.
The film is not an attack on Black men, it is in part an exploration of the pain that Black men and the rest of the world inflict on Black women. In our film, Crystal is in an abusive relationship with Beau Willie, as a veteran who is struggling to adjust to civilian life and is abusive because of his service. Together they raise two young children. At the scene, 0:27:12 Crystal persuades Beau to not drink tonight. She does this while at the same time seeing him. She tells him that she understands how the military has affected him, that he is trying, and that she is “on his side”. She validates his experience. Beau is frustrated because he is not able to break free of his addiction, get a job (“no one wants to hire a veteran”), or participate meaningfully in society. This is because he is not able to change the way the world puts him down. I think Staples says it best: “many of these men are acting out because, of all groups in this society, they have no basis for any sense of self-actualization or somebodiness.” (Staples 1979) Beau turns to violence to gain control over his life, beating and verbally abusing Crystal. Later in the film, Beau Willie drops his two children out a five-story window in a drunken rage, killing both of his children.
Later in the 27:12 scene, Beau asks Crystal why if she loves him. She responds “Man, I’ve loved you since we were fourteen years old.” He looks at her with a mixture of tenderness, relief and maybe a touch of instability. There is a lot of humanity in this expression. We can see that he needs love and reassurance. Despite his abusive behavior, he is still framed as a human, a human who has needs, the “ability to love and be loved” (Lester 1992). He is denied these. While it is complicated by his abusive behavior, we can see that he wants to provide, he wants to be a good father and husband. By the virtue of being Black (and other aspects of his identity like poverty, education, and veteran status) , he is stripped of his manhood and he is not able to pursue the idealized forms of manhood. He resorts to violence as an expression of manhood. This violence is directed at a Black woman and as Shang puts it “…black men can be extremely cruel to black women, possibly because they feel black women are the only people they are superior to” (Lester 1992*).
The above paragraphs offer a light into the pain the ten women’s faces. While it certainly does not encompass all the forms of oppression and aggression they face, it clues us into how this trauma might affect other areas of their lives. For example, Nyla, a young woman with a promising chance of going to college, gets pregnant and she decided to have an abortion. Her older sister refuses to help her get one safely and Nyla can not go to her mother for help. She instead opts to get one from a sketchy abortionist. When she ends up in the hospital (1:10:10), she is visited by a police officer, one of our main characters Kelly who is a social worker, and Nyla’s mother Alice. The characters are framed carefully in this shot so that we feel the differences in status and power even among women. Nyla is young and laying in a bed with a hospital gown on, the police officer stands at the foot of the bed taking down details of the abortion and because she is an officer, she seems to have the most authority. Kelly is sitting down acting as a sort of conduit for Nyla and her mother while also being in her own world of pain and envy at Nyla’s ability to have children (Kelly is unable to have children). Alice exudes disappointment and disgust. 1:10:24 is framed in a wide shot which allows us to see all four characters in one shot. We also see that all three women tower over Nyla’s body, visually confirming that Nyla is in a position of little power and that she does not have full autonomy over her body. The officer and Alice stand, making them look tall from our viewing point. Kelly sits, acting as a sort of mediator.
Perhaps the clearest display of power is during the rape scene of Yasmine (54:57). Yasmine has her date Bill over for dinner and almost immediately he is overly touchy. The dynamic quickly changes when he starts to undress (ironically she was telling him about how much she had enjoyed their previous date while she had her back turned to him). At 55:32 he has completely stripped down and pinned her to the wall. It becomes clear that he will not listen to her pleas to stop and proceeds to rape her. She is powerless to stop him. Not only is the scene about rape but also on the sometimes violent relationship between Black men and women discussed above. I want to discuss discrimination and its seeming invisibleness in this film. It is an all-Black cast adapted from a choreopoem by Tyler Perry with Ntozake Shang’s overview. In my perspective, they did a good job casting the roles. This is not to say that there isn’t discrimination. The thing about discrimination is that it is often invisible. While choosing the cast, there could have been discrimination on basis of acting experience, skin color (colorism), age, and weight. If you look at the last scene, all ten women are relatively light-skinned. Most have “average” bodies. There are some big names too, Janet Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg.
These were all choices that were made. Whether they reflected the industry or the casting director’s conscious or unconscious decision, they warrant evaluation while watching. This is not the essay I envisioned writing. I had planned to write a descriptive essay, going over the plot in light detail and then focusing in on a few scenes to give an analysis of the DPD aspects. I got curious not just about the story that was being told but also the groundwork that led to the story coming into being. This kind of contextualizing of the interpersonal relationships in this film gave me a much deeper understanding of the characters, authors, and world. Although I could never do this topic justice given my race and limited worldview, I hope that reading this essay provided you too with a deeper understanding of the film and the world.
Note: Some sources are dated before the release of the 2010 film. Some of these articles are in reference to the choreopoem released 1976. Since the 2010 film is an adaptation, I decided to include commentary on the choreopoem.
*I can not find the direct source for this quote. However, it can be found in Lester’s article cited below
Perry , Tyler, director. For Colored Girls . Tubtv.com /For Colored Girls, 2010, tubitv.com/movies/579278/for-colored-girls. Accessed 16 Mar. 2021.
Staples, Robert. “THE MYTH OF BLACK MACHO: A RESPONSE TO ANGRY BLACK FEMINISTS.” The Black Scholar, vol. 10, no. 6/7, 1979, pp. 24–33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41163829. Accessed 16 Mar. 2021.
Lester, Neal A. “Shange’s Men: For Colored Girls Revisited, and Movement Beyond.” African American Review, vol. 26, no. 2, 1992, pp. 319–328. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3041859. Accessed 17 Mar. 2021.