Somewhere around the middle of the new film For Colored Girls, a character muses that to be sorrowful and colored in the modern world is a state of redundancy for women. It’s a rather provocative observation made all the more haunting by the fact that it comes in a film that forcefully and unremittingly examines Black female oppression, identity, abuse and a vast range of themes steeped in depression. But the nature of the film is hardly a surprise, taking into account that it is Tyler Perry’s silver-screen adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s award-winning and revered 1974 theatrical piece for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, considered The Holy Grail of rite-of-passage pieces for any Black actress worth her salt.
When word got out last year that Perry was gearing up to bring Shange’s magical words and vision to the screen, the collective concern was how could he possibly pull it off, when Colored Girls is essentially a series of poems and monologues originally intended for stage performance. It’s a challenge that could have daunted a filmmaker less committed to a project of passion than Perry. But the result speaks volumes. It’s an emotional, empowering and observant rendering of the stage work that is not without flaw but is so gripping and unrelenting that you are tempted to overlook the regular splatters of dark melodrama and the sometimes awkward injection of Shange’s monologues into the screenplay. Still, Perry successfully weaves the interconnected stories into a compelling whole, equal parts intense and humorous, sobering and sorrowful.
The stage piece was penned for seven actresses, each assigned a metaphorical colour. For his film, Perry adds two additional voices to bolster the ensemble, an assembly of fine, accomplished actresses led by Janet Jackson (as the icy magazine editor, Jo) and Kimberly Elise as her timid assistant, who must cope with the demands of her boss at work and the vicious physical abuse of her alcoholic lover (a pudgy Michael Ealy), the father of her two adorable kids, at home. Kerry Washington (Mother and Child) returns to familiar territory as a social worker desperate to experience motherhood, while Anika Noni Rose puts her grace to good use as a sweet-natured dance teacher who experiences a shocking act of violence.