For Colored Girls (2010): United States – directed by Tyler Perry
Rated R by the MPAA – contains strong language, domestic violence, sexual content, sexual violence
Tyler Perry’s first foray into straight drama is an interesting mix. I’m not familiar with “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” Ntozake Shange’s seminal choreo-poem often considered a cultural marker. I do know many African American communities were up in arms when it was announced Perry would be adapting it, and Oprah and other influential people were brought in to consult. The play, an assortment of poetry expressing the lives of seven African American women, is fluid and impressionistic, I’m told. It lacks the hard details necessary for a successful translation into film, but this very characteristic made it so powerful on stage.
Perry has worked many of the themes from the poem into a screenplay, adding characters and settings in an attempt to make it real. His version has nine women whose lives are all interconnected, like a facile version of Magnolia [review here].
Instead of going into details on each women, allow me to briefly summarize their various situations. An apartment building managed by Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) is home to many of the film’s women. Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) is a religious fanatic whose daughter, Nyla (Tessa Thompson), has been subjugated to Alice’s ways. Another relative, Tangie (Thandie Newton), lives in the same building, and enjoys frequent, meaningless rendezvous with men she picks up at her bar. Crystal (Kimberly Elise) also lives in the building, with her boyfriend and their two children.
Other women, less connected with the apartment building, also see their lives intersect with the aforementioned characters. Kelly (Kerry Washington) is a social worker, Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) is a dance instructor, and Jo (Janet Jackson) is a media magnate at a well-known magazine.
All of their lives are touched in awful, dreadful ways. Rape, abuse, child murder, abortion, and deep, dark secrets abound. The men in their lives are philanderers, murderers, abusers, rapists, or deceitfully closeted homosexuals. Only one is a good man – Donald (Hill Harper), Kelly’s husband. Aside from him, the film could be considered dreadfully misandric.
The subject matter is adult, though many of the most graphic moments are left unseen. There is still rape and an implied backdoor abortion, carried out by Rose (Macy Gray), a creepy and terrifying woman. A moment where the nymphomaniac Tangie rushes into the hallway dressed only in a robe is laughable, as her clothing is obviously taped to her body to prevent any outright nudity. Such a small detail distracts from the emotion of the moment, as she flails around and screams in anger at a man who assumed she was a prostitute. At the same time, many of the themes work, and hope resonates in many of the women’s lives. They find strength in their common plight, that of being colored girls. This much is found in the play, I understand.
To incorporate material from the play, Perry utilizes long monologues. The women will be conversing normally, and then withdraw into an inner monologue, vastly more poetic than anything they had previously said. Occasionally this works, and is touching, but sometimes it is so antithetical to the film that it is utterly disruptive.
Other segments lean heavily on melodrama. A scene played out by Jo and her husband is so dramatically shot, and so loftily spoken, that it becomes comical. An urge to laugh must be suppressed during this crucial, serious moment. A terribly violent scene involving children and heights is also ultra-dramatic, and would be more at home in a violent exploitation film.
Perry had trouble cutting down the film, as many sections meander for far too long in an effort to wrap up each individual’s story. At times he is unable to contain his actors, many of whom strive to be as dramatic as the material. There are moments of overacting, but many of the cast members are adequate. Rashad is a standout in her role as the wise voice of an older generation, one who has already made many mistakes. She tells Tangie that “it ain’t just sex,” in an effort to curb her tireless nymphomania, and her words are some of the film’s wisest.
Perry’s direction is often adequate, though occasionally lingers too long on scenes that should not be as overwrought as he believes they are. As his first dramatic attempt, it is not as awful as it could have been. In fact, much of it works, and many of his themes are evident. Some viewers might find it insufferably melodramatic, and it might, in these circumstances, be more comedic than intended. A MST3K-like voiceover, while inappropriate, would not be unimaginable. Nevertheless, the film works on some levels, and will be powerful for many viewers.