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How Tyler Perry Handles For Colored Girls

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A woman renamed Ntozake Shange wrote a shout-out from Berkeley to black women the world over, in 1974 for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow Is enuf was born. We bought it. We read it. We saw it. We lived it. We loved it. Tyler Perry  wrote, directed and produced this 1975 adapted stage play for the screen and shortened the title. It is an adaptation of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf where each woman portrayed represents a color of the rainbow.

As black women in Chicago we saw our lives mirrored in Shange’s thick prose poems but never thought we would see them on screen and given the Hollywood treatment by a black filmmaker. That is why many African Americans are both weary and leery of mostly white top critics trashing this latest attempt by Tyler Perry.

Admittedly I went with low expectations because I was not a fan of Perry’s filmmaking…until now. It is a movie I want to see again. In fact I will have to see it again because there was another soundtrack going on in the theater. You know what I’m talking about folks.  Maybe I should say I need to see it again. Watch again the beautiful cast of black women whose skin colors range from soft sand beach to ebony wood.  To hear again voices and phrasing of stunning poetry and pearly words that resonates and lingers for days. Yes, dialogue makes this movie. And the poetic deliveries are buzz-worthy.

In For Colored Girls’ opening scene we meet the building where most of the action takes place and where most of the rainbow lives. Tyler, for simplicity, shrinks Shange’s world where five of the film’s eight women live together and already know each other. By the end they are united by murder and an attempted suicide that they did not see coming.

Thandie Newton (Tangie) lives and loves in the building and never met a man good looking man she did not want to screw for one night. Her mother Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) belongs to a cult and lives in a closet, or at least it looks like one. She had two children by a white man whom she abuses. She is a neglectful mother who lives in her own world in a cluttered apartment where nothing has a place including her daughters; one of the few metaphors well employed by Perry. Despite the pain this family manages joyous moments but usually endure heartbreaking ones that go unshared.  Whoppi is delightful to watch when she enters the scene and inhabits her Alice that sometimes is, well, just plain Whoppi.

Alice (whose garb seems homage to Alice Coltrane) recounts how her father gives her to a white man and two mulatto babies are conceived. Her daughters are both bright by inheritance: Tania and Nyla.  Nyla (Tessa Thompson) studies dance and plans to attend college but those plans are threatened. She has unprotected sex and goes to big sis for help. They argue and Nyla denies there is an unwanted baby in her belly. Tania is torn about helping her. Vengefully, she sends Nyla to the rue of wolves alone. And when things go wrong Tania blames Alice for introducing her, as a young woman, to the proverbial back-alley abortionist.

Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) the nosey but concerned neighbor offers the balm and some one-line zingers that soothe the wounds of her dysfunctional neighbors. Juanita (Loretta Devine) is the community organizer who goes to the richest black woman in town Jo (Janet Jackson) for a donation to the cause. Jo shows her the door and pushes her out unceremoniously.  Wait a minute, we know this Jo. She does not live in the tenement but in a stylish condo with a husband who cheats on her with other men: the dreaded down-low lifestyle which she discovers at the end of the film along with the fact that she is cold and heartless too.

Because of the ubiquitous building two of the women’s lives are immediately linked by tragedy: Crystal and Gilda. Gilda watches Crystal’s beautiful children during the day while she works for Jo as her assistant at a faux fashion magazine. Gilda cares—but Jo wears the mask and does not give a damn about anybody but herself thus adding to her employee’s burden. Juanita’s call on Jo there and her employee Crystal eventually brings Jo into the orb of the other six less-wealthy sisters.

The intramural conflict is aided by the ugly building. It provides continuity and a familiar backdrop that Perry returns to. He overuses this strategy and potentially scares off the new Perry audience afraid that this is another rehash of his other soapy, scornful movies that were also box office gold including this one. Unfortunately he does not try hard enough to eschew the soap. But the poems and cast of For Colored Girls saves Perry from himself. And as a new Perry fan I like this movie.

Long-suffering Crystal (Kimberly Elise) lives a life of quiet desperation at the hands of an extremely abusive returning war veteran (Carl) Omari Hardwick. Carl hams it up as we watch him lose his grip on sanity and the children. Social worker Kerry Washington (Kelly) has been called by Gilda to check out possible child abuse of Crystal’s children. Kelly’s social intervention is weak and instead of helping them she is run off by their rotten karma and Carl.   

The finest moments of the film, including the introduction, are Shange’s poems. And her words provide most of the dialogue. The gaps are filled in by Perry’s pen. His pacing and pavement are often uneven and dangerous. And I keep getting the feeling I am watching four movies that I’ve seen before all staged in the very same film! The cause: lack of transparency and smooth transitions. The film is not elegant and suffers from a Medea-like hunchback. Janet’s overblown role negatively adds to the dramatic load carried on the back of this film.

Perry dwells too long on the marriage of Janet Jackson whose devil-wears-Prada persona is both contrived and copied. She lives with her husband, not in the unpainted tenement, but in a fancy condo building with a doorman. She is a control freak at work and her life spirals out of control with a down-low husband. The men in this film behave badly, save one, but we don’t hear much from decent Donald (Hill Harper). His talent really wasted in the role as Kelly’s policeman husband. It’s unfortunate that Tyler puts the spotlight on one star (Jackson) at the utter expense of an assembled superb cast. I cannot forgive it, but I understand that it’s ratings-driven.

The good news—this film is extremely watchable. From the poems delivered by stellar performances to a beautiful score which simply lifts you out of your seat. The original poem has not lost its punch and proves a well-bred classic.  

Comparisons between Precious and For Colored Girls are inevitable. They are warranted because both works were adapted to the screen from books written by black women more than two decades ago. Both films set in New York, both about abused women and abusive black men. Both directed by black men. Precious, while not perfect, gave us sexual violence and archetypes that lend focus while its director, Lee Daniels, also managed masterful transitions and metaphors that Perry’s For Colored Girls simply lacks. Daniels won an Oscar for his screenplay and I predict that Tyler will gain some nods despite the mostly bad reviews.

The raw emotion of both films equally inescapable and many will find the scenes of a brutal date rape on the floor and an abortion done by a drunken woman in her kitchen over the top—making Tyler’s film deeply maudlin. During the rape scene there are cutaways to an opera that Jo sits silently watching.  Irony unleashed by those scenes actually works but is not worth the dignity lost that such a film should aspire.

Eight women are put through an emotional grinding throughout the film. And that may keep newcomers away. However, Tyler has placed some really clever cursing and one-liners that make the audience laugh out loud and comingle in agreement for seconds. There is light at the end of this dark tunnel which we know is not attractive—so where’s the redemption?

Redemption comes in the evening when all the women are gathered like a rainbow. They gather to sing the praises of being black and surviving life in Harlem long enough to feel the goddess spirit stirring within. They embrace it and each other saved by the light. 

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About Heloise

  • corhonda

    Saw my life, I was so moved, scared @ first but overjoyed by movies end. STILL OVERWHELMED!!!

  • Ophelia

    Ditto – saw my life in each beautiful woman portrayed. Great movie … great piece for dialogue among family and friends.

  • pkbmm214

    “For Colored Girls” is, without a doubt, Tyler Perry’s finest film to date. With its ensemble of raw and wide-ranging talent, Perry deftly captures the heart of Ntozake Shange’ play, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf”. While the cast all get to show-case their individual abilities, it is Kimberly Elise’s painful, bare and heartwrenching portrayal of an abused woman that cements the film as a worthy oscar contender. The Academy can no longer ignore the powerhouse that is Elise. The film was an excellent vehicle to portray her exceptional prowess as one of the best actresses of our generation. Other cast members – Anika Nani Rose (also a possible oscar nominee), Loretta Divine, Phylica Rashad, Macy Gray, Tessa Thompson, Thandie Newton and Janet Jackson are mesmerising in their respective roles. Sadly, Whoopi Goldberg and Kerry Washington’s performances were the weakest. But overall, this film is a must-see for all audiences. The message is universal, current and powerful. “For Colored Girls” has certainly earned Tyler Perry a place at the Oscar table. Well done!

  • nita

    Beautiful movie with magical spine tingling performances, superb opera by Karen slack and mind blowin poetry. Tyler Perry is the Man hands down.

  • Regina in Dallas

    I concur with the sentiment of this author. Hopefully the masses will ignore the white media and see the film to judge for themselves. A must see for Black women AND men.

  • Joseph

    I’m a white man… watched it, with anticipation, as I am a fan of several of the actresses in this film and remember being mesmerized by Shange’s words. The acting is amazing. Phylicia Rashad has never been better. Anika Noni Rose was heart-wrenching. Kimberly Elise… she did… an amazing job. The film IS choppy at times – the transition between verse and prose is jarring. Janet’s character is too The Devil Wears Prada initially – very reminiscent of Perry’s “bad” characterizations from previous films. Unfortunately, I don’t feel she ever grows into the role. Sad, but true. Overall, I do like the film, but wish that someone with more finesse had handled the screenwriting and directing (and, honestly, the cinematography) of the film. I wish them well and hope it makes lots of money and generates some awards recognition – specifically Elise. A couple of notes: Michael Ealy plays Elise’s husband, not Omari Hardwick (he’s Janet’s husband). And, Daniels didn’t win an Oscar for the screenplay for Precious; Geoffrey Fletcher did.

  • http://heloise8.wordpress.com/ Heloise

    Thanks for the fix. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s who when I check unless I look at every damn photos. I knew that it was not Daniels, but it was Daniel’s film really.

  • http://heloise8.wordpress.com/ Heloise

    I googled who played the husband of Elise and Carl is what came back…so who know?

  • sade turner

    michael ealy played kimberly elise’s husband,, i think the film was amazing i saw it with 3 of my sisters an my mother an we cried an cried an consoled eachother a bit of his transitions were “choppy” but i applaud him on such a great job of bringing this film to hundreds of thousands of other people who knew nothing of the play it was simply amazing an now i am actually in the process of reading the book an so far it is everything i thought it would be no less than incredible

  • http://heloise8.wordpress.com/ Heloise

    Spoiler alert:

    I looked that up because I don’t trust IMBD and still got it wrong sorry. But actually they were only common law. They lived together and were NOT married. That is why he lost his grip on the kids out the window. If you recall that scene…the murder I referred to.

    I’ve read a review where the whole darn thing was a spoiler. I’ve forgotten what all happened in the book of poems. I have the book actually but I am creating “Hotel Heloise” and redecorating my bedrooms and had to pack up like 20 boxes of books just to make room in my house. And it is probably in a box somewhere. Hopefully I did not sell it.

    But thanks for the gentle correction. The ones I got on Hereafter were mean spirited and that’s why I got mad. I can tell the difference.

  • http://heloise8.wordpress.com/ Heloise

    On another note I enjoyed tha movie more than any I’ve been to all season! The food was great at Movie Tavern and my friend and I laughed hysterically while waiting for FCG because I told her that Tyler’s movies are a cure for insomnia and act faster than a pill! (I use melatonin actually)

    His movie “I can do bad all by myself” was tops because it had me asleep in five minutes flat. His other movies had the same effect. I highly recommend them for insomnia, which I don’t have. But we laughed like crazy because when it started I let out a yawn and she said “oh no you don’t.”

    Tyler has fixed his bad image. But Tyler if you read this: soap does not sell when you can’t see the story for the fleas.

  • Mybrotha

    The movie “for colored girls” The best irresponsible movie I’ve ever seen. Tyler Perry will win an oscar (This is not a compliment)… The movie has the three elements to win 1) Homosexuality 2) Mocking God and 3) TOTAL Degradation of the Black Man…And to my Black Sista’s if u place a stamp on future and past relationships on this movie…the brotha’s will further the call of “Where the white women at?”

  • A Precious Woman

    Lee Daniels did not write Precious. The masterful transitions you laud in your review were the work of the screenwriter, Geoffrey Fletcher. And for his wonderful screenplay Mr. Fletcher was the one who won the Academy Award. Not Mr. Daniels.

  • Gabriel

    After reading dozens upon dozens of reviews of For Colored Girls, it was apparent that the film was nearly universally loathed by critics all across the US (Time magazone’s review is a MUST read!)
    Being a Black male, I decided to ignore all the the naysayers and pay $12 to attend a Tyler Perry film for the very first time, largely based on the cast he’d assembled. While I’d somewhat expected TP to turn Shange’s choreopoem into a melodramatic soap opera, what I didn’t expect was that this male-bashing piece of s**t would also be a horror movie! Damn, TP didn’t shy away from pulling out all the horrendous stereotypes of black male masculinity and present all his heroines as hapless little victims. In this movie you will see a black male rapist, a black male child killer, a black male womanizing whore and of course, the worse boogeyman of all, a black male HIV-carrying bisexual on the down-low (who’s also a thief for good measure)! Black male degenerates everywhere!  After walking out of the theater I damn-near wanted to walk straight into the Hudson River and call it a day.
    Don’t be fooled by this show of hear-me-roar-sisterhood, this movie sucked big time – just as most critics have proclaimed.  TP has made his very own Valley Of The Dolls. As usual, much of the narrative is derivative (The Devil Wears Prada 2?!) and without any doubt the viewer will most definetely know when the cast is reciting the beautiful language that Shange created versus the  Days Of Our Lives dialogue that TP dreamed up.
    And as far as I’m concerned, I may no longer be a Tyler Perry “virgin” but in the future, anytime anyone suggest I go see the latest TP movie, I’ll just respond, “Not tonite baby, I have a headache! Not about to get f***ed twice!”

  • http://heloise8.wordpress.com/ Heloise

    Thanks for the corrections. Everytime I try to add something of interest it backfires. Oh well.

    Gabriel, don’t look now but as a black woman from Chicago I’ve either seen all in the rainbow or it has happened to me. Black men need to wake up to what they are doing to the race. And it ain’t pretty. They were warned, we’ve been warned yet walked down that road anyway.

    After the dirty laundry is washed then maybe we can put on some clean clothes. Black people have accelerated karma in some cases and it’s just what it looks like. Yes, TP will garner awards because Hollywood likes to honor those denigrated.

    PS: The movie WAS NOT about homosexuality. Jo’s husband was not homosexual but bi. And there was only inference and no sex scenes of same in the film that I saw. This movie is not about homosexuality at all.

    And I spent my twenties with people who were way more out there than anybody in this movie in terms of beliefs and finding god and playing god.

    It did not go far enough–there was no redemption of black men that’s true.

    Heloise

  • http://www.myspace.com/babyfhatz Jason St.Clair

    I must say I enjoy all of Tyler Perry’s movies. I am at a lost for words when it comes to “For Colored Girls.” I must say and this is the BEST movie he has made yet. I think he is a very talented man and every movie he creates portrays a different aspect of very real life situations. As growing up with many female friends, I know the dramatic and life changing events that many women encounter from inconsiderate and heartless men. We sometimes hurt women beyond our own beliefs only to better ourselves. I know because in my past some of the male characters of this film reflect to the person whom i use to know very well, me, myself, and I. I not saying the men dont get hurt by women and vise verse, but we all have to be accountable for our actions. As my wife and I watched this movie, it touched my soul and many times I was lost for words. I appreciate the union the God has placed between my wife and I, for I see some of the childish mistakes and mishaps I made before. No ones perfect but I appreciate the love he has given me and placed in my life to make me a better man to never forsake his convenant amongst our marriage. I now know what it feels like to love another individual unconditionally and have that same love back. Tyler Perry I personally thank you for the way you are able created reallife and heart felt situations and place it on the movie screen. You are truly blessed and may GOD continue to shower his many blessings over you life with the wonderful talent you posses. Thank you for speaking out!!!

  • Barbara

    My daughters went to see For Colored Girls…on 11/13/10. They purchased their tickets but were given tickets to another movie. They didn’t realize this so-called mixup until they had left the movie theater and was on their way home. Now I ask, was this an unfortunate mixup or did something more sinister happen? Did the cashier knowingly give them the wrong tickets? My daughters are very upset because they realize the importance of the sales of movie tickets on opening night, the first week and the weeks thereafter. I did tell them that I would share their story on blogs throughout the Internet and of course to my email contacts. Please do the same. Buyers beware! When you purchase a movie ticket, make sure the ticket you receive is to the movie of your choice.

  • http://heloise8.wordpress.com/ Heloise

    Thanks for this comment Barbara. I want to write about how white films have been in 2010. It hit me when I was reviewing The Network. I mean there is NOT one black person in that and it was on Harvard’s campus. I’ve been there twice and I always see black and African people walking around. I mean not even one darn person of color in the background. SO for them to cheat this movie out of tickets is not good.

  • Jessica

    I think