Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls is a melodramatic adaptation of a classic play
By Pamela Zoslov
For Colored Girls represents a marriage of two very different traditions: the downtown feminism of Ntozage Shange’s influential 1975 play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, and the “chitlin’ circuit” box-office bait of Tyler Perry, the successful playwright, movie director and portrayer of Madea, his saucy, amply padded matriarchal alter ego. Shange’s play, or “choreopoem,” as she called it, is a blend of poetry, music and drama performed by seven women identified only by the colors they wear (“Lady in Red,” “Lady in Blue,” etc.). Through vernacular poetic monologues, the women explore issues including domestic abuse, love, rape, abortion, spirituality and black revolutionary history. When it was announced that Perry would direct the movie version, there was widespread worry: how would Perry, the director Spike Lee denounced for perpetuating negative racial stereotypes (“coonery and buffoonery”), realize this serious, important work? Would Madea be in it? Would he call it “Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls”?
Perry did neither of those things, but his adaptation is still uneven. Colored Girls has ample star wattage, with a cast that includes Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg and Phylicia Rashad. The characters are given names, and the abstract structure has been given a concrete narrative, shifting the focus from sisterhood to soap opera. It also introduces men into the scenario, in ways that are none too flattering. Perry’s roundelay of stories follows an increasingly familiar formula of demonizing black men. If the abusive males in The Color Purple and the overpraised Precious weren’t repellent enough, consider the depraved lineup in For Colored Girls: philanderers, abusers, rapists, husbands who give their wives HIV, fathers who murder their children. America elected its first black president, but at the movies, images of black men are increasingly retrograde. While the same stories were told retrospectively by the women in the stage play, acting them out literally on the screen makes them seem more vulgar than poetic.
The movie often wallows in misery — of the male-generated variety — lingering on a brutal rape (crosscut with scenes from an opera) and, based on one of Shange’s poems, the dangling of two children from a fifth-floor window by their demented father. Though beautifully acted and photographed, For Colored Girls is hampered by the fact that what was richly moving in the oral storytelling tradition becomes over-the-top melodrama on the screen.
Where the movie does succeed is in preserving the music of Shange’s poetry, weaving her monologues skillfully into the narrative and eliciting stirring recitations by the actresses. Phylicia Rashad, as Gilda, manager of the tenement building where several of the women live, delivers a particularly haunting, quietly melodious reading. And yet for every savory subtlety, there’s some regrettable burlesque, as with Whoopi Goldberg’s character, a white-turbaned religious fanatic who pours oil on her daughter’s head and exhorts passersby to “Repent! Repent!” Ultimately, the movie soars only when Shange’s poetry is center stage, calling into question the wisdom of “opening up” the play for the big screen.