For Colored Girls – A Review

Thanks to my Twitter pal @madijack, I was able last week to attend a screening of Tyler Perry’s film version of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.”

The good news?  The movie is better than early reviews in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety make it out to be.  The bad news?  It is not nearly as good as it could have been.  Those who love the source material will find plenty to hate in Perry’s version.  Nevertheless, there are some good moments that hint at Perry’s growth as a filmmaker and that, frustratingly, offer a glimpse of what might have been in the hands of a more talented director.

Adapting “For Colored Girls” for film would be a daunting task for anyone.  The seven “ladies,” identified by color in the play, are now separate characters.  The stories that Perry has created for each of them is intended to bring out some aspect of the universal experiences and themes that are the heart of the play. 

Unfortunately, this is where the movie stumbles out of the starting gate.  The characters Perry creates are Tyler Perry movie characters.  They are not living, breathing, human beings.  They are archetypes.  

So we have Thandie Newton as an over the top floozy in a bad wig.  Janet Jackson, channeling Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, plays a magazine editor who is so one-dimensional that Jackson’s limited acting range never gets tested.  Kimberly Elise is yet another sad, beaten-down-by-life woman, the same character she played in Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, except she never gets mad. 

Loretta Devine plays Madea – um, I mean, a nurse and relationship counselor who fails to take her own advice.  Phylicia Rashad is a female version of Ossie Davis’ character in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.  Anika Noni Rose plays a free-spirited dancer whose spirit gets crushed. 

The cast is rounded out by Kerry Washington and Hill Harper, who are there to be pretty and, despite having zero chemistry, to represent Black Love.  Washington, a child social worker who can’t conceive a baby, puts her full lips to good use and spends her time on screen frowning and pouting.  Hill Harper is the standard Tyler Perry GOOD BLACK MAN who SUPPORTS HIS WOMAN NO MATTER WHAT.  His role consists of not being any of the other men in the movie.  Sigh.

Some of the character choices – such as Whoopi Goldberg as a religious fanatic, and Macy Gray as a back alley abortionist – are truly bizarre.  Perry also added a closeted, “down-low” character to the plot, although there was no such person in Shange’s original.  The addition is unnecessary and offensive.

The dialogue is typical Tyler Perry dialogue, delivered with plenty of head-shaking and eye-rolling, coupled with some of the most famous poems from the original play.  It is quite jarring to hear Shange’s words juxtaposed with Tyler Perry’s direction and dialogue.  I can imagine an audience unfamiliar with the source thinking “WTF?” when an actress suddenly starts speaking in poetry.

Subtlety is not Perry’s strong suit, and most of these stories are told with a sledgehammer.  Perry plays it big and loud – the big laugh, the big shock – when smaller and quieter and softer would have been more effective.  Yet there are some moments of fine acting, particularly from Rashad and Rose.  One wishes for more of them.  The fact that those  moments exist at all is a testament to Perry’s development as a writer and director.

Perry sets most of the action in a single Harlem apartment building.  This, too, is more stereotype than real.  I once looked at an apartment in the building used for the exterior shots.  It is on a block of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. that is now quite gentrified.  The actual apartments in the building are filled with light; they are airy and spacious.  The clean, well-maintained exterior does not match the dark and rundown-looking set used for the building’s interior scenes.  As a long-time Harlem resident, I was annoyed that Perry chose to resort to stereotypes of Harlem instead of showing the vibrancy and diversity of the neighborhood as it currently exists.

In sum, I expected a train wreck, and did not see one.  I guess it helps to see a Tyler Perry film with low expectations.  The film is not bad.  But it also isn’t good. 

Perry’s movie did make me nostalgic for Shange’s choreopoem.  I pulled out my yellowed, dog-eared copy from college and re-read it as soon as I got home from the screening.  I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls.  But what I want most of all is to see “For Colored Girls” back on Broadway, directed by someone who truly understands Shange’s original and can bring it to life for a new generation of girls of all colors.

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11 Responses to “For Colored Girls – A Review”

  1. Tweets that mention For Colored Girls – A Review « Carolyn A. Edgar -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Dawnavette Says:

    Excellent review!! Admittedly, I expect the worst but will trek next wknd to view. I will surely share my thoughts. Ohhh Tyler… Lol

  3. freeyourheart Says:

    i completely agree with @dawnavette. i’m nervous to see it because the choreopoem spoke to me so deeply & when i heard TP was directing it, i wished it was a joke. i haven’t yet seen it adapted on the stage yet, being 25 living in louisville, ky, but i can’t wait for that day.

    i will go see the movie when it comes out. i admit, i’m harder on TP than i probably should be. adaptations for the screen rarely live up to the book. but i’ll try to take it for what it’s worth.

    great review, though!

  4. Melissa Chapman Says:

    I just love this review–I think it’s honest and dares to articulate how many people feel but don’t feel free to express. Of course you also have a brilliant ability to infuse your snarky and dead-on analysis and delve into the true natures of these characters and situations which makes me wonder this.. why the hell are u not a MOVIE CRITIC?!!

  5. rick Says:

    on the one hand i wish i were in the US to see the movie, but on the other hand, probably a good thing that i’m not there. thanks for the review.

  6. Keisha Says:

    Thanks for this eloquent, daring and honest review. Like you I long to see the actual play on Broadway. I think that the art that is Shange’s choreo poem can only be exhibited in the gallery that is the Broadway stage.

    I will go see the movie because it is such an important work for me… it was oft quoted to me by my mother in her attempts to raise a strong black woman. I am glad that it is being exposed to a new generation and hope that it will encourage them to read the original work.

  7. sojourner4truth Says:

    I appreciate your balance in this review. I am loyal to the choreopeom and I too was expecting a train wreck and your review let’s me know all is not lost.

    Given that Tyler Perry is the only Black director with a significant distribution contract, I am worried, concerned and angered by the never-ending cycle of cultural tropes of deficient Black folks. I work with Black teen girls and last night one of the said “85% of Latinas are beautiful and 15% are ugly but 85% of Black girls are ugly and only 15% are beautiful” My heart sank as I tried to unpack what she was saying.

    Now I’m not holding Tyler responsible for centuries of dehumanizing images and yet I am holding him responsible for continuing to participate in that cycle. If nothing else, this film with create many spaces for discussion and reflection. And, I too, yearn for it’s return to Broadway.

    In between the There is connection, intimacy, musicality and vitali

  8. Spinster (@wizardofoz321) Says:

    Thanks for the warning. Haven’t heard/read one good review yet. SMH. Won’t be watching it.

  9. tazzee Says:

    I plan to see this film. I saw For Colored Girls… on stage when I was pretty young. Then, while in college, I happened upon a PBS version that tried to translate the choreopoem into a television show. I searched and found a written copy after being reunited with such a wonderful production. Since then I’ve seen it on stage twice (maybe 3 times) in Atlanta – once directed by Jazmine Guy.

    For Colored Girls is my favorite piece. I was a little disheartened to find out Mr. Perry was directing it but I won’t pass up the chance to see it.

    Thanks so much for this review – you’ve actually raised my expectations a little.

  10. Issac Maez Says:

    Hello there dude , awesome content there. I yahoo your blogkeep it up .I seriously love to read your site.Last of all have nice day cheers!

  11. 2010 In Review « Carolyn A. Edgar Says:

    […] For Colored Girls – A Review October 201010 comments […]

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