Tyler Perry goes art house with For Colored Girls—and it’s both alarming and wonderful to behold. The alarming part will probably surprise no one. The wonderful part very likely will, especially coming from me, since I’ve hardly been one of Perry’s keenest supporters. For that matter, I’m still not. For Colored Girls is something of a mess. But in all fairness to Mr. Perry, it’s a frequently glorious mess with moments of genuine power—and they don’t all come from Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. I’ve joked elsewhere that Perry cut down the play’s title for the Twitter generation. But in all honesty, I think Perry means the shortened title to be as much a dedication to black women as it is the name of the film.
There’s no denying that Perry has taken the play and transformed it into something of his own, but that’s neither necessarily a bad thing, nor does it make it a betrayal of the source material. If Perry were not so completely viewed as compulsively coarse, crude and melodramatic—elements that are certainly undeniable in his work—I have a suspicion that For Colored Girls would be getting a better break than it is. Setting his previous work aside, the film is clearly meant to both honor the source material and to present Perry’s personal response to it. I’m not about to criticize him for that.
It’s been argued that Shange’s play is “unfilmable” as it stands. That’s debatable—certainly the same claim could be made about Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade and yet Peter Brook managed to film it effectively in 1967. Regardless, it certainly isn’t what Perry chose to do. What Perry did instead was to rework the play’s poetic monologues into a dramatic narrative that manages—sometimes torturously—to connect them all as a kind of tapestry. Something is lost in the process, yes, but I’m not certain that something isn’t gained, as well. More may be lost than gained, but there are things of value—and it isn’t as if the play itself ceases to exist just because it’s been committed to film.
The central problem with Perry’s narrative is less that it cuts up the monologues—sometimes assigning parts of them to other characters—and occasionally awkwardly fits them into realistic dialogue (which, frankly, isn’t as bad as has been claimed; it’s just jarring in the tonal shift). The far greater problem is that the film is simply too much: too much melodrama, too many contrivances, too much plot straining too hard. But it’s a bold move by a filmmaker largely known for pandering to his core audience. Here, he is challenging them to grow a little.
The plot is something of a muddle, though the idea of connecting it via an apartment building that serves as home for six of the main characters—and ties three others to the setting—is clever, even if it inevitably, and perhaps unfairly, draws comparisons to the sitcom 227. But there’s nothing very comedic here—apart from some of the trashier aspects of the melodrama. Perry’s approach to melodrama remains too serious for its own good. It’s as absurdly ramped-up as anything of Almodóvar’s, but evidences no sense of its own absurdity and so tends to become silly. For example, by the time two children are dropped out a window, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) attempts an exorcism, and Jo (Janet Jackson) starts a Camille-style nagging cough (blessedly, Perry does eschew consumption), it’s a thing of jaw-dropping wonderment. And not in a good way.
But there’s more to the film than that. It’s a wonderful showcase for the amassed talent of actresses: Kimberly Elise, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg are all splendidly served here, and they, in turn, give the film the power it needs. The only weak link is Janet Jackson, who isn’t so much bad as seemingly out of her element. Perry has always been known for assembling strong casts of actresses, but here he actually affords them material that’s worthy of them.
Moreover, it’s time to give Perry a nod for at least attempting to become something of a stylist. For Colored Girls is easily his best-looking and most fluid film—even if he does manage the unthinkable on occasion of making Thandie Newton unattractive in the way he shoots her. The sequence where he intercuts an opera with a rape scene doesn’t really work, though I tend to think the problem is less the idea than the choice of opera. I could see it working with a different piece of music—and with a filmmaker a little more sure of himself. All the same, the attempt is a bold one that may one day pay off, assuming the response to For Colored Girls doesn’t send Perry scrambling back to Madea and peddling the Gospel with weed and fart jokes. That would be a pity. Rated R for some disturbing violence, including a rape, sexual content and language.