‘Colored Girls’ strength lies in its acting hues
Perry gives noble effort but flat lines in execution
By Ma’at Atkins
When it was revealed last year that urban stage play king Tyler Perry was going to direct and produce and write the screenplay version of poet Ntozake Shange’s womanist Tony Award nominated 1977 classic, “for colored girls who considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf” the Black Literati scratched her heads wondering why a man who’s famous for impersonating an elderly-gun-toting-sassy matriarch in his broad gospel plays was self-qualified to tackle such a venerable work (including his billionaire friend Oprah Winfrey). To quell such naysayers and give respect toward Shange’s work, Perry omitted himself from placing “Tyler Perry Presents…” before the film adaptation’s title (and its his first RATED R material). But in Hollywood, the answer is revenue—and Perry has proved that he can make hundreds of millions of it.
Janet Jackson plays ice queen magazine mogul Jo/Red and Omari Hardwick plays her second husband, the in the closet broker, Carl.
Shortened to “For Colored Girls,” the film raked in an impressive $20 million during its debut weekend at the Box Office coming in at No. 3, proving that audiences, mainly black women, wants to see Perry’s version of Shange’s choreopoem (Shange herself has been on record as saying she viewed the film as possibly "unfinished.")
Although commercially successful, mainstream critics have torn the film to shreds since its advance screening in late October ( Perry’s first disclosure of his work) criticizing its mish mash directing, odd positioning of elongated prose and creating revisionist film anachronism (e.g. cell phones, lap tops, reference to Obama in dated 1970s NYC setting, female liberation and being “colored.” ) Nevertheless, Perry took a risk-- an ambitious one at that, condensing 20 of Shange’s poems (with her given notes given to him through the draft phases) to 12 and taking the poems’ dialogue and dramatizing them in scene by scene fashion.
Oscar-worthy Kimberly Elise plays Jo's magazine assistant, Crystal/Brown and MichaelEaly plays her mentally ill vet husband, Beau Willie.
“Colored Girls,” which was filmed at Perry’s 34th Street Film company in Atlanta and distributed by Lionsgate, tells the story of nine African American women of different backgrounds, classes and “colors” (Lady In Red, Lady in White, Lady in Blue, etc) who deal with the pains and struggles of their existence through their issues: abortion, loneliness, rape, spousal abuse, infidelity, male homosexuality, and religion (surprisingly, lesbianism, which is always , a “sheroic” rescuer in black female empowerment flicks was not examined).
Each character is introduced ala “Crash” style (which was one nicely done) as one encounters each other by happenstance yet the majority of the women stay in a run-of-the-mill multi-story NYC apartment building ran by busy-body matriarch landlord Gilda (played genuinely by Tony Award winning Phylicia Rashad).
Thandie Newton plays harlot, Tangie/Orange and Oscar winning Whoopi Goldberg plays her mother, the Yorubian zealot, Alice/White.
The film highlights some of today’s most talented African American actresses (even one-noted Janet Jackson) acting their butts off in their respective roles as though they had prepared for them since the stage version. The shining moments occur during their poetic soliloquies when each character is pulled out of their dramatic situation via close ups. The standouts were the compelling Kimberly Elise’s masochistic Crystal (in an Oscar worthy performance) after the fallen death of her children by her husband Beau Willie (played by Michael Ealy) , Anika Noni Rose’s larky Yasmine after a disturbing date rape from a acquaintance (played by Khalil Kain) and Thandie Newton’s sex starved Tangie after her revelation to find love in one-night stands with buffed-out Calvin Kleineque men.
One of the problems with “Colored Girls” is it’s too much of everything mixed in the ingredients (overwrought poetic soliloquies and super dramatic tragic sequences alone) that it weighted down the cohesiveness in the film overindulging in a color-by-numbers Oscar haze. Another problem is the suspending the disbelief factor with the characters when they zig zag from talking in regular voice to stagey poetic voice that sometimes work (mainly Rose’s and Newton’s) and most of the times does not (e.g. Whoopi Goldberg’s character Alice’s soliloquy dual with her daughter, Newton’s character ). In other words, it comes across as didactic, PSAish and begging to return to its home on the theatrical stage. Also, some of the characters appear dated (eg. Macy Gray’s small but engaging role ’ as Rose, the street abortionist and Michael Ealy’s, abusive shell shocked,
Tony Award winning Anika Noni Rose plays doe eyed Yasmine/Yellow and Khalil Kain plays her love interest, Bill
The men in the film are also worth mentioning. For the most part, the characters are used as springboards for the women when they induce pain or drama into their lives. With the exception of the good natured cop Donald, one of two new character Perry had written for the film (Gilda, was the other), who’s married to barren social worker Kelly (played effectively by Kerry Washington), the male characters seem to also be in pain (especially Beau Willie and down low stock broker hunk Carl, played by Omari Harwick, the second husband to Jackson’s ice queen magazine owner character, Jo) yearning for their moment to release their poetic suffering.
Tony Award winning Phylicia Rashad plays the busy body landlord, Gilda.
In context, it made sense for Perry, in his superego world, breathe life into this revered project since it came from the stage, it focused on Black woman’s plight of self efficacy and an adaptation wouldn’t have been a stretch from his own urban stageplays (as he has done since his 2005 film debut of his first stageplay “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”). Akin to all of Perry’s stage adaptations, “Colored Girls” feels stagey and uneven because of the “fourth wall” atmosphere on film. Also, it could be possible that Perry may have had some kind of “black populist ” responsibility to continue the hoorah after the Oscar wins from the indy film “Precious” he co-produced with Winfrey. Plus, Lionsgate, his mainstay distribution company pushed back “Colored Girls” from its original January release to November just for Oscar consideration.
The closing laying of hands scene with the "colored" girls.
True, the film is awkward , but that’s because the original stageplay’s set up is (women speaking prose in a cipher). Is it a horribly made film? No. It has its extremes (good and bad) and the intentions are there, but as a whole, the film is not greatly executed.
I give the film 2 ½ stars