Film Review: For Colored Girls

Tyler Perry proves that he is even more ham-handed and cartoonish with drama than he is with his incredibly popular so-called comedies.

Much has been made of the fact that über-successful Tyler Perry's name is downplayed in the advertising for For Colored Girls, as if to emphasize the fact that this is some serious art, with no sign of his bodaciously popular Madea character in sight. Nice try, but Perry's conspicuous stamp is all over the film.

When Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf debuted on Broadway in 1975, it was a bracing, literal explosion of color, black power and feminism, with its variegated 20 poems depicting the lives of contemporary African-American women. Perry has freely adapted the work, hokily linking these disparate ladies together in a Harlem apartment building. The most moving, vibrant passages are those which use Shange's language—although many of the poems have been truncated and rearranged—the free-flowing beauty and passion of which stand in marked contrast to Perry's inescapably tin ear for dialogue. He's turned the play into the weepiest, Oprah-ready soap-fest imaginable and only emphasized the work's major weakness, which can be summarized as strong black women=GOOD, no-account, abusive, addictive black men=BAD.

It's really a shame and a wasted opportunity, as Perry has assembled a strong, attractive cast of actresses, who are invariably ill-served here, subjected to grotesquely intimate close-ups while being abused, raped or in the deepest, mucus-y emotional throes.  Thandie Newton plays Tangie, a promiscuous, utterly independent soul, with charismatically fiery attack, but Perry's use of her—all angry attitude and flouncing gestures—becomes monotonous. Anika Noni Rose is Yasmine, and delivers her Latin culture-loving monologue with verve, but then is victim in a date-rape scene that goes on for an unconscionable eternity. Perry idiotically intercuts this with shots of Jo (Janet Jackson, looking like her late brother and acting like late-middle-period Joan Crawford), the snippy, cold editrix of a style magazine (ridiculously titled Robe Rouge) at some very faux-looking grand opera with her down-low gay husband, a perfect Crawford tear coursing down her surgically tortured cheek.

Whoopi Goldberg, with her “View” hosting and past “Hollywood Squares” appearances, is now probably too plain familiar to be believable in any kind of dramatic role, and her play-acting as a religious-fanatic mom—with Perry's direction seemingly intent on outdoing Mo'Nique's Precious turn—is simply unreal. Her daughter Nyla (the appealing Tessa Thompson) gets an abortion performed by none other than Macy Gray, leering and loony, grotesquely evoking the great, early character actress Madame Sul-te-wan. Fluttery Loretta Devine shows nothing new as Juanita, a woman who cluelessly, repeatedly forgives the same trifling man, much to her regret. Kerry Washington has another nowhere role as a barren social worker, but Kimberly Elise gets the meatiest part, as Crystal, abused wife of a psychotic war veteran (Michael Ealy), who does the unthinkable with their children. Elise is fine, but cannot erase the searing memory of Trazana Beverly's original stage performance.

The one actress to really emerge with dignity and grace intact is Phylicia Rashad, who invests her nosy neighbor role with a mesmerizing, quiet command. But even your sympathy for her character is drained by her not calling the cops when she hears that final ruckus going on in Crystal's apartment next door.

It's all heavy-handed, slightly embarrassing sturm und drang, with all of the life-embracing joy of Shange's writing siphoned out in favor of overwrought, "Oscar-worthy" moments. As for the men involved, with their thankless, brutally insensitive assignments, Perry's main interest seems to be purely physical, showing them nude at any given opportunity. At the end, Perry can't even stage a decent party for the girls—the music throughout has been cornball syrup and empty thunder, rather than any hip use of R&B classics—and instead of showing his actresses fiercely dancing (an integral part of the stage production), he goes for an all-too studied, posed tableau of them all, embracing in sentimental, sisterly fashion.