For Colored Girls has ambition, but Perry lacks the directorial chops to pull it together.
Tyler Perry’s back-breakingly ambitious adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s beloved 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf is a fascinating misfire. Over the past decade, Perry has become a cottage industry unto himself, every nine months or so cranking out another buppie soap opera or crazy family melodrama in which he wears a dress. Under the radar of most mainstream press, Tyler Perry’s films have grossed north of $400 million without ever being screened for critics—until now, that is.
Perhaps suffering from Oscar envy after all the wild acclaim bestowed upon Lee Daniels’ Precious (to which Perry belatedly attached his name as executive producer), For Colored Girls is the filmmaker’s bid for awards-season glory. It’s a massively self-important, oppressively weighty translation of difficult material that most folks said couldn’t be translated—and it turns out they were right.
And yet the movie remains strangely watchable, even when it’s gone bonkers. Especially when it’s gone bonkers. Audacity goes a long way. Perry might lack tonal control, the ability to modulate performances and even rudimentary visual skills, but the dude has massive cojones.
Shange’s play was seven women reading a series of 20 poems, telling intertwined tales of abuse, abandonment, abortion and rape. Perry’s stubbornly literal-minded adaptation centers the action on a Harlem tenement building, allowing an all-star cast to overlap in broad, sitcom-y fashion as different acts of degradation occur behind every door. (It seems like a really unpleasant place to live.) The film is set in the present day, but the distinctly 1970s language remains untouched, leading to some jarring anachronisms.
For starters, young dance student Nyla (Tessa Thompson) speaks of getting liquored up and losing her virginity in the backseat of a Buick, which I didn’t think kids were into anymore. Before long she’s suffering from morning sickness, but doesn’t dare tell Mom (Whoopi Goldberg, terrible) who belongs to a fire-and-brimstone religious cult and dresses like she’s still guest-starring on Star Trek: The Next Generation . Nyla’s estranged sister Tangie (Thandie Newton) isn’t much of a help, as she’s usually drunk and dragging home a different man every night—facing scornful glares from the apartment manager (Phylicia Rashad.)
Down the hall, we’ve got battered wife Crystal (Kimberly Elise) who tries to shield her two kids from a traumatized war-vet boyfriend who likes to guzzle gin and dangle the toddlers out the window. Crystal works for an uptight bitch-on-wheels (a terrifying-looking Janet Jackson) so focused on her magazine-editing career that she doesn’t even notice her husband just got arrested for blowing a guy in his BMW. Kerry Washington hovers around as a social worker who deals with unwanted kids all day yet (irony alert!) can’t conceive her own, and Anika Noni Rose shows up as a goody-two-shoes teacher who seems to be in the movie just so she can get raped.
It’s an awful lot to juggle, especially since Perry hasn’t found a way to organically incorporate Shange’s poems into the screenplay. Mid-sentence, the characters lapse into verse the way folks in musicals burst into song, but Perry just keeps shooting as if it was a regular dialogue scene. The words are often quite beautiful, and For Colored Girls actually works once in a while, when a few of these actresses (most notably Newton and Rashad) are allowed to hold the screen alone and tear into the language. But such moments throw the banality of the filmmaking into even sharper relief.
Like Precious , it all becomes a bit much. The movie’s midsection is a dizzying onslaught of child-murder, abuse revelations, hysterical breakdowns and assorted sexual assaults, culminating in a batshit, bizarrely dated sequence starring Macy Gray as a drunken abortionist working in a back-alley clinic. By that point, there’s no choice but to throw up your hands and surrender to this odd, earnest beast of a film. Then go home and read the poems.
Starring: Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson
Director: Tyler Perry
Running time: 134 minutes