“We should be immune if we’re still alive. How are we still alive?”
For Colored Girls brings together some of the most talented actresses in Hollywood in an unprecedented ensemble drama about “being alive and being a woman.” To see Loretta Devine, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose, Kimberly Elise, Kerry Washington, and Phylicia Rashad on screen together is a major event, regardless of the circumstances. It tells the story of a group of women, each struggling with their own personal drama stemming from the psychological and societal effects of being a “colored girl,” who are all living in or connected to a Harlem apartment building. The majority of For Colored Girls is either painfully dull or brutally over-the-top, but just admit it – the presence of these women is the reason you’ll be buying your ticket.
To watch one of Tyler Perry’s movies is to watch a jumble of caricatures interact in ways we recognize as human-like, though have in all likelihood never once seen conducted by an actual one. Public bitch slaps, dramatic admissions of past abuses, and men in drag waving guns at strangers and destroying private property with a chainsaw – these are all examples of ways Perry moves his narratives forward. And since his stories are more or less identical with each passing film, the variations in extreme behavior and incident are what differentiate each film and make him a continuous box office draw. Knowing full well the story going in, we’re just there to see what his characters do with it.
With For Colored Girls, however, Perry isn’t working with his own original material. Based on the 1975 play by Ntozaje Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, his movie turns a stage performance consisting of poems and dance into more classically structured film narrative. By nature of the medium, stage actors must speak louder and move more expressively than they would on stage or film. And by translating such a stylized piece with the trappings of a typical Tyler Perry film, he does, for the most part, a great disservice to the source material. The drama is too explosive, the connections between characters are much too convenient, and the plot twists exist not to deepen characters, but to illicit gasps by the audience. These are all problems with his other films, but what separates For Colored Girls is, again, the cast. As uninspired as his direction and as ridiculous as his construction may be, these women manage to give every cringe-worthy moment a sense of passion – even profundity. The climactic soliloquies given by each character, for example, have no business working on film. None. Zero. Especially considering what they’ve been surrounded with. But they do work here – and they work incredibly well.
Had these been other actresses, I assume Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls would have been a colossal failure. Instead, it’s a mere disappointment. In the moment, the performances are so good that they distract us from the sloppy and uninspired adaptation of their source material. It is, however, a temporary distraction, as we quickly remember the one-dimensional characterization, stereotyping, and awkward final message. For Colored Girls should have lingered, but by the time the women hold one another in the film’s final moments, the flame has already died out.
In short, Loretta Devine is better than you.
For Colored Girls opened today.