By Bill Wine
There’s a reason we don’t get much poetry in films. The visually realistic movie screen just isn’t hospitable to wordy flourishes, lengthy monologues, or self-conscious recitations.
That’s a big part of the reason why For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry’s otherwise admirable attempt to turn a work built around poetic monologues into a narrative movie, doesn’t work.
For Colored Girls is Perry’s adaptation of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” the Obie- and Tony-winning play by Ntozake Shange (actually a “choreopoem” that combined poetry, dance, and music, and was first produced in 1975) that tried to capture the black female American’s experience and psyche.
The original play featured seven women identified by colors performing a collection of twenty poems touching on issues of particular and intense interest to women of color — including abuse, abortion, and abandonment — most of it involving troubles at the hands of men.
The movie, however, is a kaleidoscope involving twenty named characters, concentrating on the stories of nine of them as they weave in and out of each other’s lives.
Whereas in the play the women represented different regions, in the film most of them live in the same apartment building in New York’s Harlem.
And while we may attribute all the coincidental overlapping of lives to poetic license, we still cannot get beyond the staginess of the production to an extent whereby we can focus on the corresponding reality being suggested. Verisimilitude seems to have gone out the window.
The ensemble is an extraordinarily talented one — it includes Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, and Phylicia Rashad (white shirt in photo), who is a particular standout.
But they are defeated by the combination of the spotlighted lyrical material and their director’s style, which lacks the nuance and levels of ambiguity that the material calls for. Consequently, the script’s odes to female perseverance and nods to female solidarity never stop sounding preachy.
Perry (Why Did I Get Married Too?, Madea Goes to Jail, The Family That Preys, Meet the Browns), far more gifted as a performer than as a director, certainly deserves credit for venturing outside his comfort zone and trying to transform this work, which was already idiosyncratic as a play, into a big-screen attraction without automatically turning it into a generic Tyler Perry movie. But his reverence for the original material doesn’t serve him well: more aggressive translation from stage to screen is called for.
Perry’s tendency to offer broad melodrama without shadings or subtext ends up underscoring and highlighting the material’s most stylized flourishes while it dulls the piece’s emotional impact. The movie is forever stopping in its tracks to allow a character to perform a jarring and reality-dispelling reading.
That might — might — work on the stage. It has little or no chance on the movie screen, at least not the way Perry has approached it.
Should Perry, instead of adding dialogue and settings and characters, have trimmed the piece in the same way that he trimmed the title? Probably. Might the film have had more of a chance if hyphenate Perry had worn only one or two rather than all three of his behind-the-scenes hats? Perhaps.
But even if his taking on all three roles wasn’t an act of arrogance or hubris, it more or less assured the finished product of lacking sufficient artistic perspective.
Which is why we’ll color 2 stars out of 4 for the challenging but problematic For Colored Girls. In addition to shortening the film’s title, writer-producer-director Tyler Perry should have shortened his own.