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For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange is considered one of the 20th century’s most significant pieces of literature written by an African-American.  Shange’s collection of 20 poems structured together as a play boldly captured the experience of being an African-American woman in those times in a way not seen before on stage.  Little wonder that there has never been a movie adaptation of this groundbreaking work; it’s simply too important a piece to screw up.  How unlikely did it seem then that the creator of Madea and Meet the Browns, writer/director Tyler Perry, would helm the film version of this American classic?  It actually makes a lot more sense than one might think.

Perry’s stock in trade is comedy; cross dressing as gun-toting family matriarch Madea made Perry into a household name and a force in show business.  But it’s not like every cross-dressing funny person is handed the empire that Perry has created, so what makes him different?  Perry knows his audience.  He plays to a predominantly African-American or minority crowd, giving them back the experiences they’ve lived and instilling heartwarming, positive messages along the way.  He also has a way with the ladies that no other director seems to have.  Many of the films in Perry’s oeuvre deal with women at crossroads; often tormented by uncaring husbands, family members, or their own lack of self-esteem.  By the end of a Perry film, there will usually be a return to sanity for the heroine, accompanied by a new, hunky love in a wholesome, righteous relationship.  Schmaltz to some, manna from cinema heaven to others.  So it goes with Perry’s adaptation of Shange’s choreopoem, now concisely titled For Colored Girls.

An anthology of woe, For Colored Girls examines the lives of eight African-American women in New York City.  Facing issues like infidelity, unexpected pregnancy, unrequited love, rape and tragic loss, the ladies’ loose and unexpected bonds will bring them closer as the story progresses.  More important than the plot are the performances, which are uniformly outstanding.  Janet Jackson does a perfect Miranda Priestly as a demanding fashion magazine owner who might live to regret her dominance over her marriage.  Anika Noni Rose is bright and vibrant as a sunflower playing a bubbly dance teacher, until a terrifying incident steals the colour from her world.  Kimberly Elise plays a hard-working mom and lover of a veteran who self-medicates his post-traumatic stress with alcohol.  Thandie Newton is feral and seething as her across the hall neighbour, a slinky bartender who often takes her work and her clientele home with her.  Phylicia Rashad lives in between the two women, minding both doors with either withering glares and recriminations or safe haven when needed.  Loretta Devine plays a nurse who runs a women’s center, doling out advice to bring up her ladies’ self-esteem, while existing in a half-life with a philandering married man who gives her whatever time is convenient to him.  While Devine in particular stands out most likely for Oscar notice, each of the actresses is a knockout.  They need to be because while Perry’s determination to include Shange’s original words is admirable; the insertion of the poems suddenly taking over for the movie’s dialog mid-speech is often awkward and clunky, throwing off already tentative pacing.  The constant shifts from Perry’s own simple verbiage to Shange’s lyrical musings which bloom like colourful flowers from the lips of their speakers, might have worked more fluidly onstage, but is too jarring on film to be comfortable regardless of how skillful each of the ladies are.  Jackson’s “Sorry…” speech stops the scene cold as does Kimberly Elise’s final rendering of self-recovery with the seminal passage, “I found God in myself…”  

Somewhat distracting is the lack of update to some of the aspects of Shange’s play that are stubbornly 1975, namely the use of the word “colored” to describe African-Americans of today.  Also dated is the sequence of a character’s expensive back alley abortion in this age of Planned Parenthood, though one gets the point of the scene.  Perry’s choice of camera shots leaves much to be desired, with some of the actresses being filmed shockingly unflatteringly.  Janet Jackson is the most unfortunate victim here with extreme close-ups shot directly under her chin and practically up her nose.  Lovely as Jackson is, no one’s nostrils are that pretty.

Will any of these flaws matter in the end?  Absolutely not.  This movie plays like catnip not only to Perry’s built-in demographic but to female audiences of all colors who may’ve been gun shy to return to the theatres in droves after the patent awfulness of Sex and the City 2 and other contrived recent efforts to swing the female market.  However, Janet Jackson’s couture glam and Thandie Newton’s character’s sexual omnivorousness is as close to Carrie and Samantha as this movie gets.  Although the film is directed by Tyler Perry and has its chuckles, it’s as far removed from a Madea comedy as can be.  One character’s rape is about as gritty as Perry has ever gotten and the tragedy that brings all these loose threads to their central point is shocking and sad. 

Still, this is a Tyler Perry film, so there must be an uplifting message, one that I think women will respond to and identify with despite the film’s narrative iniquities in the same way many respond to Oprah Winfrey’s self-improvement sermons.  For Colored Girls works on a cathartic emotional level that Hollywood hasn’t been able to successfully mass-produce but Perry has his finger firmly on the pulse of.

Loopy, ill-paced, but warm and often entertaining, For Colored Girls owes everything to its powerhouse stable of actresses who manage to grab at the heart of Shange’s words and lift the film past its flaws.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Nov. 1st, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Lionsgate)

 

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