Some things age well, others don’t. And on the basis of Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” seventies radical chic falls into the latter category. The original 1975 stage piece was a combination of dance and poetry, with the verse an example of the period’s penchant for florid introspection. The shards of it that survive in this version now sound mostly forced and self-indulgent.
Still, it would have been more interesting to hear the poems spoken in their original form, rather than as part of the typically soap-operatic material of his own devising that Perry has chosen to implant it in. His “For Colored Girls” is basically a gallery of contemporary black women, all suffering some conspicuously melodramatic circumstance that intersects with the situations of the others.
One is Jo (Janet Jackson), a well-to-do magazine editor feeling estranged from her handsome but increasingly absent husband Carl (Omari Hardwick). Jo’s hardworking assistant Cystal (Kimberly Elise), meanwhile, is saddled with a husband (Michael Ealy) suffering from his experiences in Afghanistan, who abuses her and threatens their children.
Living across the hall from Jo is Tangie (Thandie Newton), a hard-bitten bartender who invites a succession of men into her pad for one-night stands. Her religion-obsessed mother Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) pesters her for money to help her younger sister Nyla (Tessie Thompson)—ostensibly for school, but in reality for other reasons. And watching both Crystal and Tangie is the building super, a wise old busybody named Gilda (Phylicia Rashad), who’s concerned about them both.
Other characters include Juanita (Loretta Devine), a nurse who tries to advise women about keeping their relationships safe while herself caught in an on-again, off-again one with an irresponsible fellow; Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), a teacher who thinks she’s met the perfect fellow—a belief that quickly proves mistaken when she invites him home for dinner; and Kelly (Kerry Washington), a well-intended social worker who finds that she can’t save the children to whose cases she’s assigned, and despondent over her inability to have a child herself.
There’s a by-the-numbers, cover-all-bases quality to what Perry’s fashioned here. The women were all types in Shange’s play, too, but they approached the archetypal, while in this adaptation they come across as little more than a writer’s soap-operatic contrivances clumsily reflecting social issues facing black women that the director wants to cross off a preordained list. And the ways in which he brings them into contact are no more subtle than the characters themselves. Even more heavy-handed is the treatment of all the male characters. Virtually all of them are cads, lost souls or liars casually held responsible for the women’s various predicaments. It’s a simplistic portrayal that caters too obviously to Perry’s female fans, and in the case of one of the guys, takes a turn that feeds on a rather ugly prejudice.
Still, there’s some good acting on display here—with a cast like this, it could hardly be otherwise. But the actresses aren’t helped by Perry’s persistently clumsy direction, which has improved over the years but still has an amateurish quality. Nor is Alexander Gruszynski’s cinematography or Maysie Hoy’s editing impressive. Shots are often poorly composed, and scenes frequently lack a compelling rhythm.
No doubt Perry sincerely wants to shed light on the plight of African-American women today, just as Shange tried to do thirty-five years ago. But “For Colored Girls” is more Perry than Shange, and all the weaker for it.