For Colored Girls
‘Precious’ on steroids: Stars can’t save director from overreaching
Tyler Perry is no stranger to kitchen-sink melodrama. But “For Colored Girls’’ is the kitchen sink, the washing machine, the curling iron, the sofa, and the ironing board. It’s Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, Tony, and Razzie. It’s astounding. It’s terrible. It’s astounding. Then terrible again. It’s too much — too much screaming, too much crying, too much preaching, too much reaching, too much healing, too much feeling, and, by the time a man dangles two small black children from an apartment window, it’s too much too-much. The audience I saw it with didn’t seem to know whether to clap when it was over or start taking Lipitor.
Perry has written and directed eight movies in four years. “For Colored Girls’’ makes nine, and he goes at it like a fat person the night before a new diet. It’s binge directing. Most of his movies — including “Madea Goes to Jail’’ and “Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too’’ — are based on his own stage work. This time he’s turned to the work of a more esteemed playwright. “For Colored Girls’’ is based on Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf,’’ which, since its premiere in the mid-1970s, has been as common as “Our Town’’ on black stages. Shange had written a lyrical, 20-poem bulletin — she called it a “choreopoem’’ — of black women’s state of mind. Seven unnamed characters — they’re identified by the color of their costumes — from different American cities share a stage and a vacillating psyche.
Perry has dispersed her words to nine central characters whom he’s situated in and around an apartment building in Harlem. The women now have names and embody distinct types. Monologues that Shange wrote for one character are whittled down and spread among several women, then trumped up with generous helpings of Perry’s own ideas, which include conversational dialogue and, gasp, men. He’s plucked Shange out of the poetical ether and dragged her down to earth.
A social worker named Kelly (Kerry Washington) checks in on Crystal (Kimberly Elise), whose jobless, war-veteran husband (Michael Ealy) beats on her and her kids. Crystal endures violent tirades at home and aggravation downtown at her job, working for Jo (Janet Jackson), an imperious magazine editor — it’s “The Devil Wears Titanium.’’ Across the hall from Crystal are Tangie (Thandie Newton), a sniping sex-aholic bartender, and Gilda (Phylicia Rashad), the nosy building manager. Once a day, Tangie’s mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), wanders up from downstairs, robed and turbaned in white, to ask for money that could be going to her religious cult; her younger daughter, Nyla (Tessa Thompson); or something new to shove in their cramped apartment.
Nyla is a dancer, who, in her first scene, ecstatically describes the recent loss of her virginity. Her instructor, Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), is wary of physical intimacy but eager to get to know the executive (Kalil Kain) who woos her every morning on their way to work. Juanita (Loretta Devine) is a nurse with a second job at a community clinic. She also has a useless man residing in Gilda’s building.
In the opening sequence, there they all are, these “half-notes scattered without rhythm,’’ trudging down the stairwell, slamming doors, shouting at each other, sucking their teeth. How did a seminal work of the stage become an extra-strength episode of “227’’?
Perry truly wants to speak to a moment. In doing so, the movie rests somewhere between sermon and lurid public service announcement. Devine demonstrates to her patients how to use a condom. There’s a trip to a back-alley abortionist (Macy Gray) whose rusty tools (more gasps) wouldn’t be out of place in “Saw IV.’’ Somebody’s man is on the down-low. Someone else is headed for a showdown with her mother. One of these somebodies will contract a telltale cough that makes sense only in Victorian England.
One night Jo takes her husband (Omari Hardwick) to box seats at the opera. While tears leak from her eyes, she misses what her husband is up to. Across town, a different character is being raped. Perry moves to and fro — the assault, the husband, the tears, the opera, the dinner burning on a stove — until the movie threatens to blow a gasket.
Shange provides the spiritual inspiration for “For Colored Girls’’ — so do Tennessee Williams and Agnes Nixon and Gloria Naylor — but Perry is clearly under a competing influence. In nearly every scene, what comes to mind is Lee Daniels’s “Precious,’’ which Perry executive produced. Daniels’s exposed-nerve filmmaking — his movie’s success — might have affected Perry. Could he make a movie that was as raw, perceptive, emotionally vivid, and real? Ha! He’s made nine.
“For Colored Girls’’ is “Precious’’ on steroids, a kind of mutant issue movie. It’s powerfully ridiculous and ridiculously powerful. Perry’s conceit is that within every ordinary woman resides this beautiful language that can lilt out of her or erupt. When she finds it, she’s invincible.
Each actor has her moment or two, particularly the older actors — Rashad, Goldberg, and Devine. Rashad does nosy-neighbor with shocking integrity, but she infuses her speeches with August Wilson and Shakespeare. When Devine recites the opening lines of the most famous passage — “somebody took all my stuff’’ — her voice is music.
“For Colored Girls’’ often wants to create an earthquake that swallows us up whole. Part of this is a matter of over-identification. Perry has been playing a black woman for so long — he’s starred as the armed-and-dangerous Madea in at least five movies — that he practically is one. But black men in Perry’s movie are a source of visceral, physical ache. It’s as if a brother has broken his heart, too. For peace and redemption, he’s turned, as many a woman has, to Shange. How cathartic this has been for him is unclear. His movie is caught between wallow and triumph. Shange wasn’t interested in victims, regardless of how special they were. But you get the sense that “Tyler Perry’s SVU’’ would suit him fine.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.