At the start of For Colored Girls, the dancer dances. Viewed through gauzy colors, Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) moves deftly, her body expressing her pain and strength, longing and grief. At the same time, she recites in voiceover, “Dark phases of womanhood / of never havin been a girl / half notes scattered…” Equal parts visual montage, lyrical allusion, and strenuous effort, the scene introduces the tension that will never be resolved in Tyler Perry’s movie, between poetic figures and stereotypes.
Adapting Ntozake Shange’s 1975 choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, the film is both too literal and surprisingly clueless. The collection of women living in a Harlem apartment building is here less a reflection of possibility than a reduction. As they confront crises, each other, and what seems like a lot of bad men, they all look increasingly constrained, not a little ironic given that they end up on a rooftop, the sky around them dark and beautiful but not nearly so expansive as it might have been imagined on stage.
Following the general movement of the play, each woman in the film has an “issue,” and these become intertwined. Jo (Janet Jackson), a wealthy magazine editor and the only woman who lives elsewhere (an East Side penthouse), first appears as she’s abusing her employees, complaining about their work and furious at the lateness of her special and uncommonly able assistant Crystal (Kimberly Elise). Imperious and coiffed to a frightening hilt, Jo is a caricature of the wicked female boss (and Jackson makes her even scarier, as she sounds like she’s channeling her dead brother’s voice). Her egotism is underscored because you know why Crystal’s late, as she’s been dealing with her abusive, alcoholic, war veteran lover Beau Willie (Michael Ealy, menacingly beefy), trying to keep him off their two young children.
The relationship between Jo and Crystal is complicated, unbeknownst to either of them but quite plainly to you, because Jo is also struggling with a broken relationship, as her husband, Carl (Omari Hardwick) resents her success and especially, her efforts to control his behavior. The movie doesn’t even try to get into the deep details of any of its relationships, but rather presents them in shorthand, filtered through superficial renderings of the Men’s Problems, which they inevitably take on their women. So, while you might imagine Beau Willie’s post-traumatic torment, what you see is his monstrosity. And while you find out Carl’s on the down-low (and self-denying too, insisting he’s not gay, only having sex with men), his lack of context makes the revelation a punishment exacted against Jo, rather than a function of his own complicated story.
Women are punished repeatedly in Colored Girls, for their bad decisions, their passivity, and their trauma. The social worker assigned to check on Crystal’s so-painfully-obviously bad situation, Kelly (Kerry Washington), is distracted by her so far unsuccessful efforts with her cop husband Donald (Hill Harper) to conceive their own baby, and so she doesn’t do her job. The slack is at least partly (though ineffectively) taken up by Crystal’s neighbor and building manager, Gilda (Phylicia Rashad), who takes care of Crystal’s children while she’s at work. More than once, she also covers the kids’ ears while their parents carry on in the next apartment, the fretful cluster formed by the adult and babies less an indictment of Gilda—who’s unafraid to speak up to other, female neighbors—than yet another conviction of the man. Even if Beau Willie is out of control, desperate, and fractured, he’s turned into the movie’s most vivid villain, a raging product without a background, only a label (war veteran).
That said, at least Beau Willie is granted a few moments of vulnerability and remorse, thanks to Ealy’s persuasive and remarkably subtle performance during a couple of minutes with Crystal at their wooden kitchen table. No such moments are granted to Bill (Khalil Kain), who rapes Yasmine during a series of dire close-ups, or the never-seen kid who impregnates Yasmine’s dance student, Nyla (Tessa Thompson). As Nyla describes the loss of her virginity to her classmates, before Yasmine arrives at the studio, the entire space appears to be given over to Nyla’s articulation of adolescent fantasies (“Me and my fellow, we were dancing”).
As she speaks and stretches in preparation for class, her delight in her fiction is reflected in the studio mirror—and your own dread increases. It won’t be long, you know, before she’s headed to tragedy, specifically the grotesque abortionist Rose (Macy Gray, playing another version of her Training Day crackhead). Clichéd and silly, the trip to see Rose involves a passage through a shadowy house of horrors populated by addicts and twitchy lost souls, and then assorted point-of-view shots emphasizing Rose’s utter abjection: her cigarette, her liquor, her filthy instruments. With all this crashingly conspicuous imagery, Nyla’s gruesome evocation of the entire experience (“Eyes crawlin upon me / Eyes rollin in my thighs / Metal horses gnawin my womb”), offered a few scenes later, sounds almost gratuitous.
This is precisely the problem with For Colored Girls, which never finds en effective combination of image and poetry. Even one of the play’s climactic moments—a simultaneous overlay of life stories told by Nyla’s sister Tangie (Thandie Newton) and mother Alice (Whoopi Goldberg)—is all but lost amid the distracting repeated rack focusing and awkward staging. You lose the sense of what the women are saying, how their tragedies are the same and different, how they’ve damaged one another in their efforts to claim themselves, how their bad choices have always, always been shaped by their lack of options. Instead, you’re wondering how such powerful language has been turned inside out and made so stunningly ineffective.