For Colored Girls' stunning ensemble marks a step forward for Tyler Perry 

Rainbow Coalition

Rainbow Coalition

Ntozake Shange's innovative 1974 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf was an incendiary celebration of black women's intelligence and beauty, as well as a powerful recognition of their emotional turmoil and the abuses they'd suffered over multiple generations. Tyler Perry's film adaptation, For Colored Girls, lacks Shange's imaginative edge and linguistic flair, yet it is definitely his best work to date. It showcases his gifts as a pop-smart showman, while reaffirming his main strength as a director: his ability to get memorable performances from female stars.

Because he can't duplicate the immediacy and intimacy of the stage play — performed by seven women (garbed in symbolic colors) doing 20 poetic monologues accompanied by music — Perry compensates by gathering a mostly superb cast, then incorporating extended expository sections (and flashes of Shange's literary fire) into his own dramatized framework involving an apartment building's interconnected residents. He retains some of the nagging flaws from his earlier films: He's neither a seamless storyteller nor a smooth technician, and the editing, choices for close and long shots, and overall flow and cohesion falter over the course of two hours. Still, the ensemble's brilliance (particularly Phylicia Rashad, Kerry Washington, Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine and Kimberly Elise) elevates scenes and storylines that would otherwise become bad soap opera.

Because Perry's more a cinematic sermonizer than a narrative stylist, he has no problem plunging into the play's loosely connected litany of social ills, from date rape to back-alley abortion to domestic abuse. One segment about gay men masquerading as straight seems particularly stiff and ponderous; it isn't helped by the film's least convincing performance, Janet Jackson's caricatured literary editor. For the most part, though, he gives underrated actresses such as Elise and Washington the kind of go-for-broke roles they're rarely offered otherwise, and the room and care to make the roles breathe. Perhaps only Perry would have thought of casting the elegant Thandie Newton as a woman driven to compulsive casual sex by self-disgust — but she's a marvel in the role.

For Colored Girls is loaded with melodramatic moments and preachy segments even before it introduces Newton's mother (Whoopi Goldberg), a religious nut so far off the deep end she makes Madea (who thankfully is nowhere around) seem like a portrait of stability. Factor in the feel-good conclusion that's one of Tyler Perry's major motifs, and once again you have a collision of tones and themes that no other filmmaker would dare. But his constituency is unconcerned with the glitches and flaws his critics relish in citing. They embrace the emotional manipulation cynics decry because they share Perry's love for the black church and its values. Even though For Colored Girls contains far more ugliness than his usual fare, it fulfills the prime mandate of his productions: to celebrate the power of faith, the importance of love, and the black community's ability to overcome any obstacles. 

The complaint has been made on websites like The Root that this is just another anti-black-male diatribe, but that charge obscures the point. For Colored Girls is resolutely pro-black woman, and any negative factor in their lives is the movie's target. To one among many who has long wished Tyler Perry would broaden his scope and outlook beyond Madea, For Colored Girls represents his boldest step yet in that direction. He may have stronger suits that require no padding.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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