It's dated, theatrical and over the top. In the 35 years since the play's premiere, it still doesn't cut black men a lot of slack.
But Tyler Perry’s film adaptation of Ntozoke Shange’s legendary “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” bristles with passion, poetry and ambition.
And if his “For Colored Girls” doesn’t overcome the play’s staginess or Perry’s own limitations as a dramatist, it’s not because he doesn’t give it his best shot, and his best cast – from Thandie Newton and Whoopi Goldberg to Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine and Kerry Washington. He doesn’t embarrass them, himself or the play.
Perry reset this “choreopoem” – seven archetypal women, dancers, delivering monologues – in an inner-city apartment building, setting up a community of relatives, neighbors, acquaintances and employees. The high-powered magazine publisher Jo (Janet Jackson, looking years and pounds younger than in her recent Perry films) lives uptown where she suspects her man of cheating. Her employee, Crystal (Kimberly Elise, in a moving performance) is stuck in a dingy walk-up and an abusive relationship.
Phylicia Rashad plays the nosy landlady, whose “I used to be you” is a favorite bit of advice that few of her tenants heed. There’s sexually assertive bombshell barmaid Tangie (Thandie Newton, ferocious), who uses men and insultingly kicks them out the door in the morning. Juanita (Loretta Devine at her earthiest) is a nurse struggling to teach neighborhood women safe sex and what not to put up with in relationships, even though she’s putty in the hands of her two-timing man.
Tangie’s naive younger sister Nyla (Tessa Thompson) is just now coming into her own sexually. And their cult-following mom (Whoopi Goldberg, plainly out of practice as an actress) is no help, keeping the sisters apart, judging Tangie for her promiscuity. Nyla takes dance lessons from a great role model, Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose of “Dreamgirls”), a proud woman who keeps her distance from men, but conveys a sexy, self-assured gentility. And Kelly (Kerry Washington, wonderfully wounded) is the social worker who stumbles into some of these lives, mainly because of Crystal’s unraveling home life.
It’s a movie built on verbal flourishes, playwright Shange’s purple turns of phrase. Juanita doesn’t just confront her man (Richard Lawson). She lights him up – lyrically.
“I have loved you assiduously for eight months, two weeks and a day.” A visit to a back-alley abortionist (Macy Gray) sees her decrying the “six blocks of cruelty” they all live in.
“Being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet” is the mantra here, a “dark phrase” that sums up these women as they face rape, murder, abortion and betrayal.
That high-minded language, delivered with “This is my close-up” bravado by the various players, can’t help but provoke eye-rolling on occasion. Perry’s additions to the script are more matter-of-fact than florid (he had to provide the plot), and he can’t quite commit to making this a more artful take on the play. We can fret over what a real stage-to-screen wizard such as Julie Taymor (“The Tempest,” “Across the Universe”) would have done with this material – something more daring, certainly.
But Perry’s great gift to this unfilmable play is getting it on the screen, his sharp eye for casting and his evident affection and sympathy for black womanhood, even in movies in which he doesn’t don a dress.
FOR COLORED GIRLS
* * *
Cast: Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise
Director: Tyler Perry
Running time: 2:12
Rating: R; disturbing violence including a rape, sexual content, language