I saw "For Colored Girls" last night and my impressions were somewhat more positive than negative, powerful performances by & large despite Tyler Perry’s ham-fisted, clunky direction and moralizing, message-changing screenplay.
Whereas Ntozake Shange’s play celebrated Black womanhood and sexual liberation, Perry’s template focuses on the pathology of victimhood. The young girl played by Tessa Thompson (Veronica Mars, etc.) couldn’t just lose her virginity in high school (which the play & book celebrated as a happy moment of sexual awakening) but had to get a back-alley abortion from Macy Gray and wind up almost dying because of it. The character played by Thandie Newton was an unabashedly sexual being in the book, unapologetic about liking sex without attachment. Perry couldn’t resist writing in a scene where she she did in fact lament the type of woman she had chosen to become along with some clumsy back-story explaining why she came to this.
Which brings up the other glaring disconnect. Was this supposed to be a period piece set in the 1970s of the play? The mise- en-scene is decidedly modern and contemporary. And if modern, then why didn’t she just go to Planned Parenthood to get a safe abortion? Even in the late ‘60s (I was there and I know) abortions had become legal, available , and affordable and thus this TP melodramatic contrivance becomes anachronistic and pointless.
As good as much of the acting was, some of it was so over-wrought and emotionally over-the-top that it reminded me of one of those ‘Last Mama on the couch’ plays that George C.Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” made such fun of (TP, cue the mournful strings and the treacly soundtrack).
I found myself diverting myself playing 6 degrees of separation: (Loretta Devine starred in the original Dreamgirls on Broadway. Phyllicia Rashad was an understudy in the original Dreamgirls on Broadway. Anika Noni Rose won a Tony on Broadway (Caroline, or Change) and also starred in the movie Dreamgirls. Ntozake Shange brought the theater piece that would become “For Colored Girls…” to New York from Oakland, fine-tuning her play in a performance space provided by Gylan Kain (original member of the Last Poets) whose son Khalil Kain debuted in the1992 movie “Juice” and also plays a rapist in the film “For Colored Girls.” Kimberly Elise starred in the Jonathan Demme film “Beloved” with Thandie Newton. Kimberly Elise also starred in Tyler Perry’s first Film “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” But I digress…
The good: I thought Phyllicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine and Thandie Newton were particularly good. Tessa Thompson was pretty good too (I was a fan of “Veronica Mars” in Which she played one of the students).
The not-so-good: I have long been a fan of Kimberly Elise but Perry had her so over-the-top in her degradation and grief (the murder of your children will do that to you) that she became mopey, ineffectual, annoying. I’ve long been a fan of Whoopi Goldberg’s too (going back to her stand-up and one-woman show on HBO) and as much as I loved her in “The Color Purple,” Perry had her channeling Celie through some ambiguous type of religious fanatic cult member that just didn’t work for me. And I’ve long been a fan of Kerry Washington (“Our Song,” “Last King of Scotland,” etc.) but Perry has given her little to do but stand around looking pretty and helpless, the good woman who wants children and can’t have them due to a pre-existing STD (TP and his sex out of marriage morality again). Which brings us to Janet Jackson, who displayed some decent acting chops though I was constantly distracted by the way her short-cropped hair made her a dead ringer (sorry) for Michael Jackson in drag.
Enough has been made of Tyler Perry’s characterization of the Black men in this film, that while the play had none, the film has five: a crazed war veteran child murderer (Michael Ealy), a charming pretty boy who just happens to be a rapist (Khalil Kain), a closeted bisexual who infects his woman with HIV (Omari Hardwick), a trifling middle-aged commitment-phobic philanderer (Richard Lawson) and a caring cop with a heart of gold (Hill Harper). Courtland Milloy (whom I often find irritating)made a big deal about this in the Washington Post but I’m inclined to give this a pass. They were not Ntozake Shange’s characterizations but Tyler Perry’s. Her play was not about the men. It was a womanist work in which the women reacted to the negativity in their lives (including the men at times) by asserting agency and moving on. Perry felt he had to go for the stereotypes, the familiar tropes, in short for the melodrama he continues to be powerless to resist.
That said, Shange’s words maintain their wonderful power despite Perry’s distractions and embellishment.The weakest moment’s in the film are when the women are forced to voice his words, which stick out because they lack her gift for language.
Now, I had reservations going in to this Tyler Perryization of a beloved work, but I was determined not to be like those friends and students of mine who refused to even see Darnell Martin’s wonderful film “Cadillac Records” just because Beyonce was in it playing blues legend Etta James. As a result, they missed a very good, very under-rated film by an under-rated Black woman director (“I Like it Like That.,” “Their Eyes Were Watching God”).
I am happy I saw this film and can even find something positive that Tyler Perry brought to “For Colored Girls”: his built-in audience of slavishly devoted fans. Truth is how many people today are even aware that a Black woman named Ntozake Shange existed or that in 1975 she had written and performed a choreopoem called “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” that spoke to a generation of Black people (and not just Women or for that matter, not just Black women), or that she had taken her play from coffee houses in the San Francisco Bay area all the way to Broadway where it was nominated for a Tony Award for best play (it won best actress for Trazana Beverley as the lady in red)? I hope this film leads to productions of the original play in college and regional theater, perhaps even once again to Broadway.
I forgot one other positive from "For Colored Girls": The closing credits featured the Nina Simone classic "4 Women" with Nina singing the first verse and Ledisi singing the other 3. Very moving homage to a classic. Have to get that on my iPod.
Anyway, that’s my take on the film, my own humble opinion, for what it’s worth.