By Jake Coyle/ AP
Tyler Perry, whose name usually adorns the titles to his films, has not disowned his latest, the simply dubbed “For Colored Girls.”
On the contrary, his gesture of seeming humility is a self-conscious stab at respectability. With his 10th film, Perry has tried to make a “serious” film, one that courts critical acclaim and maybe even some of the Oscar buzz that the Perry-produced “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” found this time last year.
But make no mistake about it, “For Colored Girls” is not much of a departure for Perry, who has made a trademark out of extreme melodrama, done quick and cheap. That might be good news for his ardent fans, but it is bad news for everyone else.
Unlike “Precious,” ”For Colored Girls” at least has not awkwardly jammed its source material into its title. It is based on the Obie Award-winning play, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” by Ntozake Shange.
First performed in 1974, the play — which Shange called a “choreopoem” — was a sensation. Played by seven wounded but resilient black female characters (each known only as a color), it is a series of 20 poems.
The play was a powerful flow of eloquent, full-blooded testifying, one that has since been revered and repeatedly staged. That Perry would be drawn to it makes sense: Raised by women, he has made them his specialty.
Finding a narrative to string Shange’s poems together, though, is no easy task. Perry has put most of his nine women into one Harlem apartment building (they were scattered across the country in the play), where their stories overlap.
There is Crystal (Kimberly Elise), the mother of two and wife to an abusive war veteran (Michael Ealy). Her boss is a fashion magazine editor, Jo (Janet Jackson), whose steely success castrates her husband (Omari Hardwick).
Across the hall from Crystal is Tangie (Thandie Newton), a bartender who slides into bed easily with her customers. Her sister is a high school dancer, Nyla (Tessa Thompson) who has just lost her virginity. Their angry, righteous mother (Whoopi Goldberg) is a religious fanatic clad in only white.
Living in between Crystal and Tangie is Gilda, a concerned, motherly neighbor (Phylicia Rashad). Then there are the health workers: Juanita (Loretta Devine) runs a women’s health clinic, and Kelly (Kerry Washington) is a visiting social worker. Dance instructor Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), who is betrayed by a date, rounds out the protagonists.
If that sounds like a lot of characters to keep track of, it is. Perry juggles them all awkwardly. Fitting all their stories in leaves room for little character development, and what is left is the most sensational aspects of their stories.
“For Colored Girls” plays very much like a typical Perry soap opera, with the exception that every now and then his characters spout a poetic soliloquy. The rich language of the ruminations are utterly disconnected from Perry’s dialogue.
The monologues still offer some sanctuary, surely proof that Shange’s words remain
strong even when insufficiently surrounded. Jackson and Goldberg may be among the bigger names in the film, but their characters come across especially thin.
Thompson shines, particularly in her post-abortion soliloquy: “Eyes crawling up on me, eyes crawling up my thighs.” Rose, too, resonates in her speech as someone “betrayed by men who know us.” Elise, another character who must reconcile herself to tragedy, also gives a strong performance.
Perry, himself an incredible rags-to-riches story, is intractably drawn to characters who survive hardship, often through faith. But he lacks subtlety in fleshing out characters, and he does not have the filmmaking talent for anything more than low-rent television.
His urge to face real ugliness in the world and inspire perseverance is admirable. But “For Colored Girls” can only go down as a missed opportunity, where a work of art should have been trusted to more capable hands.