In For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry trades in Madea for a high end, high-minded source — a beloved 1975 Ntozake Shange play — and comes away with the same sort of overheated, overstuffed kitchen sink cinematic work that’s become his calling card. It’s a mess, proving once again that the mega-rich Atlanta one-man studio’s business acumen surpasses his filmmaking talents.
Granted, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf could not have been an easy work to adapt, consisting as it does of 20 loosely conjoined prose poems centered on such hot-button issues as rape and abortion. Using Shange’s reflective, elliptical prose as a starting point, Perry crafts an interwoven ensemble of women, who face some serious, pressing crises while largely sharing the same Harlem apartment building’s roof.
Among them: Crystal (Kimberly Elise), who works for monstrous magazine editrix Jo (Janet Jackson) and struggles to cope with her abusive, alcoholic Iraq War veteran boyfriend/father of her children (Michael Ealy). Across the hall, Tangie (Thandie Newton) aggressively thrusts herself on random men and suffers through a traumatic non-relationship with her religious cult-belonging mother Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), who lives downstairs. Wait, there’s more. Alice’s other daughter Nyla (Tessa Thompson), the “non screw-up,” takes dance lessons from Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), social worker Kelly (Kerry Washington) struggles with sterility and Gilda (Phylicia Rashad), watches over all. Oh, and Juanita (Loretta Devine) is tortured, emotionally, by her on-again, off-again lover.
Whew. Writing that paragraph was exhausting, so one can only imagine the great fits Perry must have gone through when he realized that Shange’s play might not actually be so amenable to a screen adaptation. Perry only knows one mode, melodrama, and he pours it on, engulfing the storylines he spins off from Shange’s text with soap opera friendly plot developments. The broadest possible emotions and the most outlandish calamities take over in a kitchen sink effect, culminating at a point where a character learns she’s been given HIV by her secretly gay husband and the movie’s become a farce of misery.
Further, For Colored Girls all but shuts down when its actresses recite Shange’s soliloquies, which have been transformed from earnest pleas of the self to tackily incongruent, pretentious digressions from the stories at hand. Characters say things like “being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet” and “I found god in myself,” lines of great meaning and weight that fall flat when delivered in Perry’s straight-on, literal style. The filmmaker tries to dress up the soliloquies with some meticulous compositions and an “eye” for the avant-garde, but on film Shange’s writing comes across as drawn less from a place of deep, spiritual significance than the filler serving a pedestrian director’s desperate stab at importance.
The entire film is suffocated by an inflated sense of self-worth — we are making a crucial movie of great pedigree about major underreported issues is the general attitude — that scenes which should seem sincere and affecting are instead rather gratingly calculated. You won’t buy a second of For Colored Girls, no matter how strenuously Perry’s terrific cast (the film’s true saving grace) toils to bring the project credibility. One hopes (surely in vein) that Perry elects in the future to stick with what he knows, or takes some directing lessons, stat.
The Upside: The actresses are all top-notch.
The Downside: Tyler Perry has no idea how to direct a movie.
On the Side: The film was originally supposed to be released in January, but was bumped up to awards season for an intended Oscar push. Godspeed to Lionsgate, because it’s not coming.