Of Perry and Poetry

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.

For Colored Girls

Director: Tyler Perry
Cast: Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad
Rated: R
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-11-05 (General release)
UK date: 2010-11-05 (General release)

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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