Tyler Perry transforms an award-winning choreopoem into conventional melodrama
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: R Grade: D+
When the greenlight buzz first traveled along the wire, there was surprise and concern regarding Lionsgate’s decision to turn Ntozake Shange’s Tony award-winning choreopoem over to an urban moralist like Tyler Perry, a filmmaker who has certainly made money for the studio and established himself as a niche brand leader in the box office world, but who has never been known for his metaphoric or artistic sensitivities. I am one of the few critics willing to allow for the fact that Perry has advanced over the course of his career as a director, but I have always done so under a rather strict caveat, which is that he started out blocking scenes as if he were still working on a static stage and had to learn to take advantage of the mobility of a camera and the sense of being able to incorporate a variety of settings into his brand of storytelling; all of which, to his credit, he has done. But that, sadly, has not made him a better filmmaker or storyteller and For Colored Girls completely exposes his limits in these areas.
In the original presentation, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuff, Shange used a series of poems, told in a bracingly bare spoken word format by women, black women, identified by the colors of the rainbow, who endured the abuses of life, the daily trials and tribulations, the heartbreak and the moments, the briefest glimpses of hope, love, and charity, usually found in the support of others struggling to survive their own hardships. The stories were the groundwork, the integral building blocks, but the play took flight and touched the souls of audiences through the voices and movement of the performances.
And the element that works best in Perry’s adaptation is rooted in the performance aspect. Several of the women who assume the leading roles in this filmed rainbow dazzle us with a dynamic mix of voice and grace and grit. Loretta Devine blazes a trail here that would earn distinction of the highest order (think of the Streeps, Spaceks, and Mirrens) if not for the fact that she rarely gets this kind of artistic showcase as a black actress not usually seen as a beauty in Hollywood. But here, as Juanita, the lady in green, who runs a neighborhood clinic for women seeking to overcome various cycles of abuse in their relationships, while dealing with her own failings and insecurities, she flips from righteous sensuality to crippling self-doubt and back without missing or misplaying any of the emotional beats. Right behind her, Anika Noni Rose (Yellow), Kimberly Elise (Brown), and newcomer Tessa Thompson (Purple) fiercely defend the line with truth beyond the words.
Unfortunately though, they and the rest of the cast are let down by Perry and his inability to frame things in any way outside his rudimentary narrative boxes or moral tropes (although, he refrains from appearing in drag, so that’s a step in the right direction). The stories of the women, while updated a bit for a more contemporary feel, are too literally translated, too on-the-nose, which cages these beautiful magical performers, these birds who need to fly as well as sing.
For Colored Girls will be shown at Rave the Green 14