‘Colored Girls’ Doesn’t Do its Source Justice

For Colored Girls -- Dir. Tyler Perry (Lions Gate Films) -- 2 STARS

COURTESY LIONSGATE

"For Colored Girls" is writer and director Tyler Perry’s adaptation of playwright Ntozake Shange’s "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Not Enuf."

"For Colored Girls" is painful. Directed, written, and produced by Tyler Perry, the film is the equivalent of a two-hour emotional abuse session, and the funny moments are as painful as the rest—a woman slapping the cadaver of her rapist isn’t really all that funny—but they serve as the only release of tension in such an overly dramatic film. The original work, a series of poems collectively referred to as a choreopoem, by Ntozake Shange, titled "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf" does not shy away from the raw pain presented in Perry’s film adaptation, but there is hope, redemption, and an affirmation of the power of black womanhood and humanity in a larger sense by the end. In Perry’s hands, however, "For Colored Girls" is dragged down by screams, sobbing, stretching silences, and sweeping music that render an already heavy plot nearly unpalatable, leaving behind a bitter taste of destruction and defeat.

Shange’s choreopoem is the story of seven different women represented by seven different colors, each with her own story to tell. Though there is a jumbled sense of temporality in the original written work, in Perry’s film, all of their stories are happening at once (in the same apartment building, no less), and navigating their contrived relationships takes up at least the first 20 minutes of the film. Perry’s nods to each woman’s representative colors through clothing, objects, and even places of work are heavy-handed (Lady in Orange is named Tangie and Lady in Red runs "Robe Rouge" magazine) and may seem confusing to those who do not know the setup of the play.

Actually describing the plot of the film is like creating a catalogue of every woman’s worst nightmare. In two never-ending hours, domestic violence, rape, murder, childhood sexual abuse, back-alley abortion, HIV, and alcoholism are either graphically depicted or graphically discussed. Unfortunately, Perry is as ham-handed with these topics as he is with the women’s colors, resulting in many painfully long scenes of horrible events.

In one such scene, vibrant Lady in Yellow (Anika Noni Rose) is violently raped, the filming of which is incomprehensibly interspersed with shots of a digital clock and cuts to Lady in Red (Janet Jackson) at a shrilly sung opera, crying as her secretly gay husband checks out another man in the audience. In another, Lady in Purple (Tessa Thompson) sits on a table in a dark room waiting to get an illicit abortion. Perry’s choice to depict the scene from the poor girl’s point of view intimately includes the viewer in the terror that she feels as the camera zooms in on Macy Gray’s character rinsing fearsome silver tools in dirty liquor.

Most of the actresses do their best with Perry’s interpretation of Shange’s play, but they truly have their work cut out for them. Perry seems to use them for their crying skills and, by extension, their ability to endure lengthy and extreme close-ups of tearstained, tortured, and distorted faces, rather than their actual acting capabilities. This is especially true of Kimberly Elise as the Lady in Brown, who spends much of the film wailing and moaning due to an unspeakable crime committed by her character’s husband, despite the fact that she has the most room and arguably the most skill to deliver lines that could convey more than another shot of her sobbing face.

Loretta Devine as Lady in Green and Phylicia Rashad as the apartment manager do the best in their roles, imbuing their characters with wisdom and the warmth of human relatability occasionally missing in the other actresses. This is no accident; their characters are the sort that Perry is experienced with handling—multi-dimensional women with a sense of humor who have to make it in a rough world.

The script creates other acting difficulties; it switches back and forth between everyday dialogue and the rhyming, sing-songy soliloquies that characterize Shange’s work, making for awkward moments when "For Colored Girls" forgets that it’s a movie and not a play. Nowhere is this more evident than the fight scene between Lady in Orange (Thandie Newton) and Lady in White (Whoopi Goldberg), when both women sit in the same room, deliver parallel speeches that don’t quite seem to be addressed to each other, and then return to their previous argument. It is unclear whether these moments are supposed to be internal monologues or actual conversational exchanges, and they create even more confusion in a jumbled plot.

Tyler Perry tries to do too much in "For Colored Girls" and his writing and directorial choices turn Shange’s well-respected choreopoem into a melodramatic, painful piece on multiple levels. It’s an unfortunate truth that minority art in America, whether intentional or not, often ends up functioning as a representation of an entire minority group. "For Colored Girls" paints black women as strong but emotionally imbalanced victims of a resoundingly negative portrayal of black masculinity. "Being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet," says Newton’s Tangie, in a modified version of one of the most powerful lines in the original play. Part of the reason that the film is so painful is because the depiction of blackness, even in a supposedly post-racial America, is still an unconquered dilemma, and Perry does it a disservice in "For Colored Girls."

—Staff writer Araba A. Appiagyei-Dankah can be reached at aadankah@fas.harvard.edu.

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