Sometimes it’s best to go into a movie with no pre-conceived notions and no expectations. Just be willing to absorb whatever is put in front of you. That was my mindset when viewing For Colored Girls, the film adaptation of poet Ntozake Shange’s critically-acclaimed stage play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Originally performed in 1975, the play touched on powerful recurrent female themes, including rape, abortion, and domestic violence. These are the issues that Tyler Perry is tasked with bringing to life in For Colored Girls, a movie with big shoes to fill.
Let me start by saying that Perry does a commendable job. I have been underwhelmed by most of his offerings, the last of which was the dreadful Why Did I Get Married Too? Here he had rich material with which to work, rather than his own musings and I think that made all the difference. I know that was the ultimate backhanded compliment, but I do hope that Perry has turned the proverbial corner and that For Colored Girls will be remembered as a new beginning for him as a director. Although I came into the theater without having read Shange’s work or having seen a performance of her renowned play, I at least knew what to expect in terms of style. I knew that the movie was based on a series of poems, so I was prepared for the lyrical soliloquies when the characters periodically veered into expository monologues. I suppose some viewers might view this as a pretentious trick, but you have to consider the source material. The uninterrupted stream of consciousness was necessary to adequately portray each character’s pain and it made the movie seem more cohesive.
So now you know what the movie is about, but what is it REALLY about? For me it was about finding the underlying strength innate in all of us, even when another person (i.e. your mother, your lover) or life in general seems hell-bent on destroying you. Sometimes a person destroys you all at once. We see this in the character portrayed by Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls), when she is the victim of date rape. Other times a person or thing can chip away at your psyche, destroying you bit by bit, slowly and over time. This is exemplified in a few of the characters, most notably those portrayed by Kimberly Elise (The Great Debaters) and Thandie Newton (2012), who gave the two most powerful performances of the film. Elise portrayed Crystal, a battered woman who remained steadfastly supportive of a man (Michael Ealy, Takers) who served his country bravely, but is now psychologically broken, suffering from some type of post traumatic stress and unable to find employment. As we know (or should know), the ability to provide for his family is directly tied to a man’s feelings of adequacy. Take that away and you may have some dark days ahead. In the presence of his two young children, Ealy’s character is abusive and domineering, a drunken tyrant who turns to alcohol to assuage his feelings of worthlessness. Instead of leaving an abusive partner whom she refuses to marry,Crystal remains in the relationship, with devastating consequences. Kimberly Elise gives a heart-wrenching performance, but I think she needs to branch out more in the future. The victim role is a fleshy one, but she has shown time and again that she can thrive in such a role. It’s time to broaden your repertoire Ms. Elise; I’d like to see what else you’re capable of.
Turning to Thandie Newton, her character Tangie exemplified the manner in which women often look to sex to fill a void within. Tangie has a rough exterior, but you realize that she uses sex as shield to paradoxically keep men at bay to avoid experiencing any real intimacy with them. The last time she allowed herself to be vulnerable was probably during her childhood, when her mother forced her to get a back alley abortion after she was quite possibly impregnated by the father who molested her while her mother stood idly by. Whoopi Goldberg played her mother, a religious zealot who favors Tangie’s younger sister Nyla. Her favoritism drives a wedge between the two sisters, who already hail from a dysfunctional household. Eventually through self-examination and a frank conversation with Phylicia Rashad’s character Gilda, a matronly caretaker of sorts, Tangie makes a breakthrough.
For Colored Girls was beautifully directed, and I must tip my hat to Mr. Perry. He was given outstanding source material, but the vision you see on screen is his alone, and he should be credited for it. As unflinching as I have been in my criticism of him in the past; I must be equally effusive in my praise of him now, although my praise is measured. Each “colored” girl (actress) represents a color of the rainbow, and Perry used a subtle touch (for once) as he incorporated the corresponding colors throughout the movie. I am also a big fan of the intersecting storyline format, which was employed here. With the exception of Whoopi Goldberg, the others actresses gave wonderful performances, from Kerry Washington (Lakeview Terrace) to Loretta Devine (Crash). For me personally, Whoopi’s performance did not resonate as much as the others. I felt like I was looking at Whoopi, not a woman struggling with the aftermath of her own broken childhood while mothering two very different daughters.
Known for his one dimensional characters and storytelling, For Colored Girls was a marked departure from previous Tyler Perry movies. I hope it is a sign of bigger and better things to come, and I hope that you go into the theater with an open mind. If so, you will find a deeply moving, rich movie filled with layered performances. Despite its somber tone, it was not too “heavy” or depressing, and it was not a “downer.” I say try this gem on for size – you may like the fit after all.
This article first appeared at www.poptimal.com and was reprinted with permission.