For Colored Girls

4 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: January 10, 2011
Color-laden poetry in motion

Director Tyler Perry has taken on a huge task in bringing Ntozake Shange’s stage play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf to the screen. The 1975 script utilized twenty poems and seven characters (each one designated a colour of its own). In many ways, taking 35 years to find its way to the cinema speaks a further volume about the subject matter.

With a much larger cast and without the special intimacy that only live theatre has, there was every possibility that this “version” would necessarily pale in comparison to its emotionally-rich, primary source. Thanks to a stellar cast and deftly chosen/created music, the film seems a worthy next step in the process of honestly discussing difficult issues that can’t be put to rights with a simple “sorry.”

Somewhat akin to Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times (where the all-female cast reveals the life of a singular woman told from the perspective of a quintet of decades—cross-reference below) this drama features one matriarch and a covey of women—two blood-related, the others spiritually-related—trying to find meaning in an existence where men continually fail them, yet most of the abused (in varying degrees) condemn themselves for the actions of others. “Let her be born and handled warmly” as early hope is soon dashed by infidelity (with either sex …), rape, murder and ostracization from within and without.

The emotional Molotov cocktail of despair consists of being alone, women and—tellingly last—coloured. Magically, (probably better realized in the theatre) the latter is not confined to black. Instead, the main players are each assigned a name, “situation” and hue.

At the centre of the angst is Crystal (brown). The gleam of her name has long been tarnished thanks to the father of her two children (Michael Ealy). The war vet turns to drink to dull his service memories, beginning an unending downward spiral of death and destruction that might have had a different outcome if those around him had “acted.” The troubled man can’t abide his partner’s pledge to never marry him. Kimberly Elise digs deep into Crystal’s awful truth and finds its flicker of hope.

Janet Jackson seems born to play the hugely successful magazine publisher, Jo. Red has to be her colour. With a Meryl Streep “Prada” temperament at work she makes her employees (including Crystal as her “project” personal assistant) see crimson. At home, second husband Carl (Omari Hardwick) has trouble asserting his manhood with such a domineering bride. Neither find success by journey’s end but, perhaps, settle for the possibility of a modicum of inner peace trying to surface above their boiling blood.

Crystal’s social worker is concerned about reports of abuse and beatings. Kerry Washington (playing Kelly) has her own “blues” with fertility problems and inability to save her client from unimaginable grief.

All-seeing apartment manager Gilda doesn’t get a colour but serves an important role as go between and catalyst with her nearby tenants. Phylicia Rashad morphs beautifully from busybody to sage. To her apartment’s right is Crystal’s war zone to her left is Tangie’s man zone. Peeling away the skin of “orange” reveals a troubled “survivor” of the worst men (strangers and relatives) can uncaringly take. Her parade of one-night stands is a very shallow string of revenge fucks based exclusively on sex—void of feeling. Thandie Newton scores shamelessly with every trick (but never for cash!) until the pressures of family burst her poisoned balloon of self.

Younger sister Nyla (Tessa Thompson) is the colour purple. The talented dancer seems the envy of her sibling until an absent condom paves the way to an abortion clinic most foul. Trying to ride herd on these two disparate daughters is Mamma. None better than Whoopi Goldberg to sear through her “white is right” role, explaining yet again how the allure of occultism can appeal to those who have been so cruelly used by those who love them religiously.

Yasmine (yellow) dances up a storm with her girls, hoping, like Nyla, they will work their way out of the seedy part of Harlem and onto the Great White Way. A sudden love interest (Hill Harper) burns much more than their second-date dinner even as Jo and Carl try to patch things up at the opera but still can’t see the obvious forest for the self-serving trees. (Aaron Zigman’s “La Donna in Viola”—with text from Shange and sung by Karen Slack and Andrea Jones-Sojola—is a highlight all on its own). Anika Noni Rose—notably during her police interview—brings the verses and Yasmine’s character to incredible life.

Finally it falls to Loretta Devine’s Juanita (green) to be the life of the party. Whether prying Jo for cash to support a women’s sex clinic or enduring yet another promise of fidelity from Frank (Richard Lawson) this persona comes the closest to being stable and focussed, anchoring many of those around her.

Perry does his best work when putting the spotlight on the featured women or seamlessly moving the scenes (be they on a doorstep, tony restaurant or emergency ward). Not surprisingly, given the source material, once the men are actually present rather than imagined, the narrative looses much of its punch. It’s hard to imagine a military man not knowing what a chauffeur is or serial rapist failing to take advantage of a proffered key code. A stoic bedroom confession—the sad couple back-to-back—also fails the credibility test as does the one return to the nest too many.

Still, the power of Shange’s poems (especially when delivered largely as written with marvellous overlapping thoughts and ideas) makes this film required viewing for anyone who thinks life is no longer worth living.

The closing credits’ tracks bring everything together with “Four Women” (Nina Simone, Simone, Laura Izibor & Ledisi). Joshua Bell renders the bookend solo violins lines with customary skill (cross-reference below), but the surrogate fiddler sitting on an aging upright, lazily swinging her feet sounds a false visual note. JWR

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