For Colored Girls
Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 5 Nov 2010 (General release); UK theatrical: 5 Nov 2010 (General release); 2010)
For a filmmaker who never catches a decent mainstream break, Tyler Perry is about to up the ante. No, he’s not taking his often derided quasi-Christian drag acts to new obnoxious heights (though those who’ve seen his recent stage play Madea’s Big Happy Family may argue otherwise). Instead, he’s tackling one his constituency’s most sacred of literary sources - Ntozake Shange’s award-winning “choreopoem” For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. It’s a mighty task indeed - the play is not really a narrative, but a series of slam style poetic readings meant to identify, if not wholly characterize, the black female experience in America. There are no plot points or individual moments of motivation, just beautiful, beautiful words.
For her part, Shange has taken the truths that every African America knows by rote and retools them into a series of sensational, emotional monologues. Like passages in the books Song of Solomon and Beloved by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, Colored Girls uses the lyrical nature of verse to clarify and condemn the many lingering stereotypes in the minority community. Shange’s sensational poems focus on abuse, abortion, sexuality, freedom, equality, prejudice, rape, murder, and perhaps the most telling of all, the gender imbalance between the sexes. Even with Perry’s storyline additions - more on this in a moment - Colored Girls confirms that in a pathetically paternalistic world, nothing is worse (or more wondrous) than being a woman.
Structured like something akin to The Women of Brewster Place, Perry gives us the story of two sisters - the blatant whore Tangie (Thandie Newton) and teenage dance prodigy Nyla (Tessa Thompson). Their mother (Whoopi Goldberg) is a religious fanatic, and their apartment manager (Phylicia Rashad) thinks she’s their - and everyone’s - surrogate parent. Also in their building is Crystal (Kimberly Elise), the assistant to high profile magazine editor Jo (Janet Jackson) and subject of frequent beatings by her Iraq war vet boyfriend (Michael Ealy). We also meet Nyla’s good hearted teacher Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), an AIDS clinic organizer (Loretta Devine), and a social worker (Kerry Washington) hoping to help Crystal and her two kids.
For those familiar with Perry’s previous films, this adaptation will not be a surprise. The material intrinsically plays into the writer’s well known frame of retro-reference, and while not as bawdy and burlesque as his other works, For Colored Girls sums up his strategies surprisingly well. At his core, Perry is a showman, someone who understands the inherent value in melodrama, manipulation, and most importantly, music. His theatrical pieces are like revivals, simplistic Bible and relationship messages measured out in cliche filled conversations and powerful gospel songs. One just can’t help but get swept up in the “spirit” of things, Perry’s eager to please nature shining through every archetypical anachronism.
In the case of For Colored Girls, Shange’s poems are now the tunes. Indeed, this adaptation is unusual in that it feels like a musical without a score. In fact, Perry makes the bold decision to have his cast consistently break out into moments of introspection lifted directly from the famed ‘70s piece. The juxtaposition is odd at first, since we aren’t prepared to see serious situations suddenly calmed so that a character can have a strange interlude. It works in prose because someone like Morrison prepares us with her inventive use of magic realism, and on the stage, we expect the actors to “play” to the crowd. In the movie translation of the title, Perry never lays a foundation for the concept. He just sets up his story, introduces his cast, and then delivers the devastating insights.
It’s an approach that will guarantee condemnation, a cranky, curmudgeonly criticism destined to fall on more than a few deaf ears. Everyone involved obviously believed that Shange’s experimental conceit needed to be modernized - or to be even more cynical, decidedly dumbed down for the average moviegoer. But that belief fails to take a massive misconception into consideration. Most of the audience who will flock to For Colored Girls on opening day KNOW, or at least know of, Shange’s work. They have studied it, lived by it, memorized and found hidden meaning within it. They don’t care beyond a faithfulness to the source, and while the story may be manufactured out of thin air, the truths trapped inside are very real and cannot be ignored.
In fact, one imagines that many purists would support a new way of viewing For Colored Girls glorious words. After all, even for a supposedly hip Me Decade crowd, Shange’s arch ambiguities are sometimes hard to fathom. By giving it over to Perry, by allowing him to work his misconstrued “minstrel show” magic on the material, he gives the stanzas form. Like a music video or a ramped up rap reinvention, For Colored Girls suddenly leaves the stage of your imagination and makes its points perfectly clear in visuals 70 feet high. The horrors of rape or abortion are already present in the poetry. Perry just gives them a life that exists beyond the power of the pen.
Honestly, For Colored Girls may be the rare case where the cinematic sword is as mighty as the literary device that bore it. Anyone who argues that he is not faithful to Shange’s words or ideas is a liar - Perry presents them almost verbatim, cutting and pasting to make logistical sense of the sometimes random stream of consciousness thoughts. Granted, this is not a revue, or a straightforward take like the ‘80s TV version, but that’s not why he was hired. With Shange’s robust soliloquies as his inner passion, Perry can mess around with convention and kitchen sink soap operatics to his heart’s content. He understands he cannot compete with his muse so he politely crafts the connecting scenes so that the original voices of these renowned ‘Colored Girls’ shine through.
It’s unfortunate that many public pronouncements about For Colored Girls will come down to those who do and do not “get it.” Others will embrace it/dismiss it automatically, depending on what side of the demographic they’re on. The truth is that, in a long line of intended crowdpleasers, movies made specifically to speak to people who will react to them ‘the right way’, For Colored Girls is strikingly different. It is obtuse, off-kilter, undeniably arresting and performed with a kind of acting gusto unseen in recent films. Everyone here is terrific, teary-eyed and true to the measure of Shange’s words. Even Macy Gray’s gravel voice finds a perfect fit here.
Instead of shelling Perry with criticisms, the media should champion his formidable all black female cast. Any other filmmaker would be walking away with awards for such vision. Sadly, the baggage Tyler Perry brings to each and every project guarantees a certain amount of animosity. As stated before, For Colored Girls will definitely up the ante. It’s a shame it won’t be in the way the artist, or his source, intended.