Tyler Perry may have a lot to prove with his upcoming film “For Colored Girls.” Perry is known for his black romantic comedies and critics doubt the filmmaker’s writing skills are sharp enough for such a poignant drama. The film is an adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s award-winning Broadway play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The powerful work is a collection of, what Shange calls “choreopoems,” about the complexities of black female identity and our struggles. The play debuted in 1974 but her message about black girls blues still resonates today: abuse, infidelity, poverty, sexism, defining our sexuality, fighting for respect. The list goes on. I hoped Perry would successfully take on such a challenging project because of his passion for addressing some of black women’s woes. As a black woman who loves movies, I’ve been thirsting for a good drama starring black actresses for a while. I mean real good like “The Women of Brewster Place” or “Soul Food.” Perry chose a stellar cast–Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Kimberly Elise, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Kerry Washington and Tessa Thompson. His rendition takes place in a modern-day urban America. The acting is solid. Unfortunately, much of the script is not.
The first half of the film tries to connect all of the women through nine storylines. But watching their lives link feels choppy at times as it jumps scene to scene. However it comes together more seamlessly by the second half. Another problem is how Perry incorporates poems from Shange’s original work into the script. Kerry Washington plays Kelly, a social worker married to Hill Harper’s character Donald. In one scene Kelly explains to Donald she’s infertile because of an STD she contracted years ago. She goes into a poem about a lover who cheated on her with one of her college friends: “Three of us like a pyramid. Three friends one laugh, one music, one flowered shawl knotted on each neck…” I read the play prior to watching the film and know this poem. But in this scene the poem doesn’t fit and may confuse some in the audience, especially those unfamiliar with the play. Another instance where prose comes off awkward occurs when Rashad’s character Gilda babysits Crystal’s (Kimberly Elise) children. Crystal and her husband get into a violent argument next door. Gilda tries to distract the kids and performs a few stanzas about her love for Hatian Revolution leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. It’s difficult to pay attention to Gilda while Crystal is screaming and getting pummeled by her alcoholic husband.
The recurrence of dated language is another drawback to the film. The word “colored” appears a few times in the dialogue when actresses perform poetry. Shange wrote the play back in the ‘70s. The film is set in the present and black people don’t use the word “colored” anymore. Watching a character type on a laptop then hearing someone describe themselves as a “colored woman” a few scenes later doesn’t feel realistic.
“For Colored Girls” isn’t all bad. The acting is strong and will not disappoint. Kimberly Elise stirs you as always. Loretta Devine is funny and vivid. Thandie Newton delivers as a troubled, selfish sex addict. She and Whoopi were matched perfectly as a mother and daughter with serious tensions. Singer Macy Gray’s eerie portrayal of a back-alley abortionist will make you rethink ever having unsafe sex. It was a hauntingly-good scene and well directed. I felt the nervousness and vulnerability of her pregnant patient. Also, there are instances where Perry effectively integrates Shange’s poems into the script. Yasmin’s (Anika Noni Rose) crime report to the police officer, in prose, is almost placid yet intense. Goldberg’s and Newton’s characters go into a poetic exchange filled with a lot passion and pain. And I enjoyed Devine’s colorful performance about a man almost running off with her “stuff” or her love and self.
“For Colored Girls” is not my favorite Tyler Perry film, but I recommend you see for yourself. Make sure to read the play first. It will help you gain a better understanding of the film. Although I hoped for something better, it was refreshing to watch an ensemble of talented black actresses in non-demeaning roles. Some of the best actresses in the industry are part of the cast. Notice I said not the best black actresses, but the best in general. I appreciate Perry for his effort because I imagine he wanted black women to feel empowered after watching the film. A few scenes moved me. Still, I left the theater feeling a little down because dramas starring black women are rare. A television or movie drama starring a black female cast is about as common as the Texas Rangers going to the World Series. Perry will probably do well at the box office because of the buzz surrounding “For Colored Girls” and his fan following. Hopefully, Hollywood execs will take note and this will be the start of more dramas starring black actresses to come. Hopefully.