Film Review: Tyler Perry Treatment for 'Colored Girls'

Kimberly Elise's performance as Crystal in 'For Colored Girls' deserves Oscar attention. Michael Ealy stars as her abusive war veteran boyfriend.

Quantrell Colbert/Lionsgate

Kimberly Elise's performance as Crystal in "For Colored Girls" deserves Oscar attention. Michael Ealy stars as her abusive war veteran boyfriend.

Tyler Perry leaves Madea drag behind but continues to bind his characters in the purple costume of histrionic melodrama and hysteric cliché in "For Colored Girls," the entertainment mogul's earnest but muddled attempt at fashioning a film to be both a popular success and an important work of art.

Kimberly Elise's performance as Crystal in 'For Colored Girls' deserves Oscar attention. Michael Ealy stars as her abusive war veteran boyfriend.

Quantrell Colbert/Lionsgate

Kimberly Elise's performance as Crystal in "For Colored Girls" deserves Oscar attention. Michael Ealy stars as her abusive war veteran boyfriend.

"For Colored Girls" weaves together the stories of nine different women - Jo, Tangie, Crystal, Gilda, Kelly, Juanita, Yasmine, Nyla and Alice - as they ...

Rating: R for some disturbing violence including a rape, sexual content and language

Length: 134 minutes

Released: November 5, 2010 Nationwide

Cast: Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose

Director: Tyler Perry

Writer: Tyler Perry, Ntozake Shange

More info and showtimes »

The truncated title sounds a warning. "For Colored Girls" was adapted by writer/producer/director Perry from Ntozake Shange's acclaimed 1975 stage play, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf." This work remains a key text of feminist black identity and a staple of drama programs eager to encourage self-empowerment among young women.

Shange's play consists of 20 poems, choreographed to music, which deal with such issues as rape, abortion and domestic violence. These stylized, poetic folk-monologues are delivered by seven women identified only by the colors they wear: "Lady in Yellow," "Lady in Green" and so on. Obviously, this material would be difficult to re-structure into anything but the most arty of motion pictures, which is one reason the play has remained unfilmed for more than 30 years.

Perry's solution is to transform Shange's work into what is recognizably a Tyler Perry Film (even though this is the first time in Perry's career as a director that the movie title hasn't been preceded by the possessive form of the auteur's name). As the shortened title suggests, the source material has been simplified, yet it also has been expanded: Perry has added several mostly no-account men to the action, and created elaborate, typically tragic back stories and "Crash"-like connections for the no longer nameless women. The movie ends with a group hug, but it takes date rape, STD's, a "down-low" husband, teen pregnancy, girlfriend-beating, exorcism and even baby defenestration to get there.

Perry's directorial choices rarely fail to awe. In an apparent nod to the famous baptism sequence in "The Godfather," Perry cuts back and forth between a brutal rape and an opera performance. When a young dance student (Tessa Thompson) goes for an illegal abortion, Perry requires her to walk down an alleyway that is as grotesque as anything imagined by the most virulent anti-choice pamphleteer: It's an obstacle course of barking pit bulls, junkies, leering dice throwers and mad people -- a tea partier's nightmare of Harlem. As this scene demonstrates, sex, in Perry's prudish vision, is scary, and almost always worthy of punishment -- it's an avenue to betrayal, exploitation, disease, even death.

Perry's "For Colored Girls" takes place in the present, although it hasn't shed its 1970s skin; the characters frequently behave as if cell phones, the Internet and the modern social welfare state weren't invented. (Does a 2010 teenager really need to rely on an alcoholic witch woman played by Macy Gray to terminate a pregnancy?) Fortunately, Perry has assembled a first-rate ensemble to become these characters; the most notable member is Kimberly Elise (also the star of Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman"), who is genuinely Oscar-worthy as Crystal, a working mother struggling to raise two young children in a household oppressed by her abusive boyfriend, a psychopathic war veteran (Michael Ealy).

Crystal's apartment-house neighbors include the sexually profligate Tangie (Thandie Newton) and a saintly building manager (Phylicia Rashad), who's as wise as she is nosy. Tangie's mother is a turbaned cult member, played by Whoopi Goldberg.

Other characters include Kerry Washington as a social worker longing for children of her own; Anika Noni Rose as a too-trusting dance instructor; Loretta Devine as a charity organizer plagued by an unfaithful man; and Janet Jackson as an unconvincing fashion-magazine editor seemingly modeled on Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada."

Most of these characters get a spotlight moment in which they deliver one of Shange's poems, in close-up, long, uinterrupted takes. The performers shine -- "Being colored is a metaphysical dilemma," declares Newton; "I found God in myself, and I loved Her fiercely," says Elise, in what may be the play's signature line -- but the monologues clearly don't match Perry's dialogue. The effect is like encountering the Chez Philippe soufflé du jour in the buffet line at a Piccadilly cafeteria.

Thanks to the performances and to Shange's writing, the movie -- almost in spite of itself -- accumulates a certain power by its end. Perry doesn't disprove the notion that the original play is essentially unfilmable, but he does remind us that almost nobody else is making quality films that speak directly to African-American women.

-- John Beifuss: 529-2394

© 2010 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.