Released in the height of Oscar season with a host of hopes attached, Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” looks like a game-changer. Perry is wealthy and powerful, the cast is top-notch, the original material is beloved and respected. An adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 stage play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” Perry’s film shortens the title, expands the scope and modernizes the time frame, and the end result is a oil-and-water mix of Shange’s original play (made of 20 poems delivered by seven unnamed women) and Perry’s storytelling instincts, where the characters now have names, jobs, relationships and interconnections.
Jo (Janet Jackson) is a high-society magazine publisher with a blighted marriage; Juanita (Loretta Devine) a social worker coping with an on-again, off-again lover. Crystal (Kimberly Elise) is a mother struggling with her troubled veteran lover’s problems and her two children; Tangie (Thandie Newton) is a bartender hoping to bury her past in meaningless sex. Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) is a dance instructor who is assaulted on a date; Nyla (Tessa Thompson) is a student of Yasmine’s with her own secrets. Kelly (Kerry Washington) is a social worker who cannot help her charges, and Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) has a fierce devotion to God that’s driving her daughters away. And Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) sees all from her top-story apartment.
To state that Tyler Perry, a director of color who’s making films that try to speak the concerns of often-unheard women of color, is a bad filmmaker solely because of his background and ambitions is purely racist. At the same time, to state that Tyler Perry is a good filmmaker solely because of his background and ambitions is equally racist. Perry’s film depicts calamity after calamity, tragedy after tragedy — rape, molestation, suicide, homicide, infanticide, infidelity, sickness, mutilation and other agonies — in a never-ending stream of moments intended to hammer at the hardest heart until it feels something. The end result is like watching an entire week of Sundance dramas in two hours, or “Precious” on fast-forward, so overloaded that it leaves the realm of the tragic and verges on the comedic.
In the theater, we are aware we’re watching a play, and poetry like that of the original becomes its own artificial world, and the heightened atmosphere creates a powerful response that draws you in. At the movies, in drama, we look up to see an imitation of life, and as Perry’s characters slip out of dialogue to monologue, from everyday speech to heightened poetic language, from his words to Shange’s, you are distracted by the artificial nature of the material, and all you can think is Who talks like that? A poetic monologue about rape delivered in a single spotlight on-stage, live, is moving; in Perry’s film, a character delivering a poetic monologue about rape — with a policeman in the room with her, right after we’ve seen the event — is disconnected, distracting, distancing.
Perry’s profited greatly from his films, and prides himself as an honest Christian showman outsider who doesn’t need the Hollywood or media establishment — “For Colored Girls” marks the first time in five years that Perry’s screened one of his films for critics in advance of its release. Now, of course, with classic and emotionally intense material at hand, it’s not so much that this film has seen respectability thrust upon Perry but, rather, that his aspirations to respectability are being thrust upon us. Worse, he simply cannot direct. I have seen episodes of “The Good Wife” with better cinematography, production values, staging and editing than “For Colored Girls,” and his inability to shape a dramatic moment — or make it even vaguely visually appealing — leaves his talented cast adrift in formless, ugly scenes.
Newton, Rose and Elise are excellent actresses — you can tell because they turn Perry’s mutant variation on the original play into something even remotely watchable. But when Thompson goes down a back alley to get an off-the-books abortion, she goes past two sets of gamblers, a lunatic and a pit bull. When Elise’s veteran husband (Michael Ealy, all fever sweat and rolling eyes) snaps, he commits not one but two murders. It is not enough that Jackson’s husband be cheating on her; he must be “on the down-low,” secretly gay, and that must be extrapolated to its hateful conclusion by the finale. These things happen in life, to be sure, but they do not happen all at once.
“For Colored Girls” is not drama. It is not even melodrama. It’s misery tourism, a glass-bottom boat trip through a sewer of exploited and artificially constructed tragedies so the audience can feel better about not being down there with the poor unfortunates on-screen. I’ve heard many people say Perry’s films are “not for movie critics,” as if reviewers were some alien species instead of lucky, informed, passionate human beings. But peel back the fog of hysterical emotional blackmail “For Colored Girls” throws up, and it clearly isn’t for movie critics, or for movie audiences; it’s for Tyler Perry and his ambitions. I used to think there was nothing worse in modern moviemaking than Perry’s unfunny, incompetent stooping for profit. It turns out that when he boldly and blatantly panders for prestige, he reaches even newer lows.