WHAT IS IT?
Ntozake Shange's 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Contemplated Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf is a collection of 20 prose poems with dance and music performed by a cast of seven women, identified only by the colours of their dresses, on a spare stage.
Shange's play focuses on trials and triumphs of varied black women's lives, including domestic abuse, rape and abortion as well as the pleasures of friendship, sex, music, poetry and dance. The winner of an Obie Award and a Tony nominee, it has also been produced for television and in numerous stage versions, including an Appalachian one with a white cast.
Now, here is the film adapted for the screen by Tyler Perry. Perry, who has made nine films since 2005, is an entertainment powerhouse, rated by Forbes as the sixth-most-powerful man in Hollywood. He has the clout to get For Colored Girls made, but his name also rouses doubts. Shange's play was about revealing authentic black women's voices. Perry's forte is melodrama mixed with slapstick, in a series of plays adapted into films starring himself in drag as the wise and sassy grandmother, Madea.
Madea doesn't appear in For Colored Girls. Maybe she could have helped.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
It doesn't. The film is a mawkish mess, only occasionally alleviated by the performances or Shange's poetry. Perry's script arranges for most of his characters to find their way to one Harlem walk-up, where the ugliest in an orgy of third-act tragedies takes place. The other place where most of the characters end up is in the hospital.
The actresses include: a one-note Kimberly Elise as an abused common-law wife and mother of young children; a stiffly unconvincing Janet Jackson as a diva magazine editor with a husband on the down low (The Devil Wears Prada-inspired plot is Perry's invention); a breathy Loretta Devine as a community nurse who is a fool for love; a too-good-for-this Anika Noni Rose as a dance instructor who learns that Mr. Right is the opposite; a really-too-good-for-this Kerry Washington as a child-welfare worker who can't have children; an underwritten Phylicia Rashad as the all-seeing apartment manager; a miscast Thandie Newton as a cynical promiscuous bartender; Tessa Thompson as her sweet younger sister who gets both the virginity-losing and abortion monologues; Whoopi Goldberg, in an embarrassing performance, as their religious fundamentalist mother.
The highlight: singer Macy Gray's creepy, hypnotic monologue as a back-alley abortionist.
DOES IT MATTER?
Yes, in a negative sense. In a year when there have been predictions about a probable "all-white" Oscars again, the dearth of good scripts for actors of colour is a dilemma. Though African-American stars (Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman and Zoe Saldana) have been in some of the top-grossing blockbusters of all time, they are not currently doing roles that earn awards and confer artistic credibility. A Broadway adaptation from a literary writer with a black cast is a rare opportunity. This production represents a missed chance for actresses of the calibre of Anika Noni Rose and Kerry Washington.
For Perry, his most ambitious film to date exposes his limitations as a director and an uncanny instinct for the grotesquely inappropriate: A cutaway to dinner burning on the stovetop during a rape scene suggests an homage to Precious, which Perry helped to produce. In another scene, Janet Jackson's character drives to her assistant's apartment, where she sees a man dangling his children out of the window. Yes, the incident is described in Shange's play, but putting Jackson in the scene was Perry's idea. Instead of evoking terror, it feels like the worst tribute ever to the memory of Michael Jackson.
For Colored Girls
- Written and directed by Tyler Perry
- Starring Thandie Newton, Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg and Anika Noni Rose
- Classification: 14A