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.