Kudos to Tyler Perry for taking on this revered and seminal work that turned artistic expression inside out with its explosive energy on stage over 30 years ago. Master story teller that he is, Perry dug deep and grappled with the emotional core of the scattered monologues of the treasured text from Ntozake Shange’s award winning For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf and sculpted them into interweaving stories in this, his latest movie release. For Colored Girls, the movie, is packed with a powerhouse collection of some of the finest actresses around. And the poems by Ntozake Shange ring as fiercely true and powerful as ever.
Discussion groups and salons have sprung up nationwide to re-explore the issues of lingering hurt and suffering that the movie raises, like leakage from a festering wound that’s still trying like Hell to heal. To that end, the movie works, as an electrifying montage, introducing young audiences to Shange’s luscious text, which otherwise have been relegated to audition monologues.
The movie highlights the acting chops of some revered actresses, including Phylicia Rashad, who, be still my heart, has firmly cloaked herself in the mantle of Ruby Dee as the ever present matriarch who don’t take no mess. Whoopi Goldberg proves yet again that she’s more than a talking head and won an Academy Award for a reason; the sumptuous Loretta Devine opens and closes the movie with ease and aplomb; Kimberly Elise portrays the depth of inner emotional hurt and pain like no one I’ve seen in life and could just sit in front of the camera for 90 minutes as far as I’m concerned; and Anika Noni Rose goes through the most profound transition, radiating dazzling beauty before her brutal attack then goes deep under a dark shroud as a scarred scared sister afterward. Janet Jackson does what she can with her role but, bless her heart, her monotone performance just does not have the emotional depth and gravitas of the other cast members to pull it off. Her tight and harsh make-up only extenuates her stone cold expression instead of complements it, so she comes across more Halloween scary than severe as intended.
So much for magical realism.
However, no amount of ferocious acting and well-intended directing can turn this mismash into acceptable cinema. Just as Shange helped to usher in a new genre identified as a “choreo-poem,” Tyler is apparently trying to create a new artistic genre, a blend of poetry embedded in cinematic portrayal. Maybe in time, such a concept will take hold. It works for musicals where performers burst into song and dance that propel the storyline. But that’s just it– the existence of a storyline on which to anchor lyrics and movement is to thrust a message forward. In this case, the magical wonder of the stage version of Colored Girls is anchored in the sister circle of characters identified only by rainbow colored costumes, chanting, moving, sharing and grieving and ultimately healing by finally giving voice to their struggles.
With her luscious text, Shange blasted through the prevailing sentiment of “hush, don’t tell” with roots going back to slavery, and gave voice to horrific fragments of women’s experiences in interwoven segments reflecting their struggles and inner journeys. While Perry who penned “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” is an ideal candidate to take on this brave attempt to cast the messages to wider audiences, he sacrificed the soul of the piece to get there.
For first timers and the uninitiated, the stories are familiar enough, women are treated badly— neglected, lied to, cheated on, beaten up, brutalized, cast off, cussed out, kicked to the curb, and taken advantage of, by men. So, men do not fare well in this movie. Okay, it is not their story. I can get past that hurdle and accept that this collection plumbs emotional depths to get to the core of hurt and is thus intentionally skewed to make a point. Fine. Let’s go with that.
The stage play allows the men to be described, even mimicked, by the women. In the movie, though, the men come across as even more despicable because they are now flesh and blood characters in front of the all-seeing camera. Same thing with the children. Listening to what happens to them on the stage is heart-wrenching enough and builds to climatic moments of healing within the sisterhood. Watching the film, seeing their faces and hearing their little voices, however, is just plain gruesome and sickening.
So, no, this movie did not work for me.
But, I might be biased having seen the play over the years, performed the monologues and immersed myself in the language. The young audience members in the movie theater I attended seemed to recognize and appreciate the kindred spirits of the characters just fine, and so hopefully this effort to introduce Shange’s text to a wider audience will work on at least some basic levels.
Last summer, two performances of For Colored Girls … sold out within minutes at the D.C Black Theater Festival. Hopefully the movie will spark future performance opportunities. And that, at least, would be a good by-product of the film.
For Colored Girls
Based on the play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange
Written, Adapted and Directed by Tyler Perry
Produced by Lionsgate and 34th Street Films
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
This movie was released November 5, 2010.