Some labors of love should be told to get lost. For Colored Girls, director Tyler Perry’s cinematic adaptation of the seminal 1970s play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Wasn’t Enuf, is that kind of well-intentioned, but doomed-from-the-start effort.
I have no doubt that the original work was very meaningful to Perry and his talented cast. But the play’s “choreopoem” structure—7 different actresses reciting poetic monologues that depict 20 unnamed characters—is nearly impossible to adapt. Perry chose to use 20 actors and give all the characters names and flesh out their stories. He also chose to occasionally have the actresses break the fourth wall and recite the plaintive, rhythmic dialogue from the play. It’s a risk that might’ve paid off in the hands of a more talented director, but here it just feels jarring and awkward.
Another problem: The film’s melodrama is piled on so thick, it borders on laughable. And the play’s themes of female empowerment are a bit dated now: One character is date raped and has to convince a police officer that a woman can, in fact, be raped by someone she knows. Another character has a seedy back-alley abortion—in (now) gentrified Harlem, no less! And the play’s relentless man hating—virtually every man in the film is a rapist, liar, thief, or abuser—feels like a product of an outmoded kind of feminism, not to mention terribly unfair. (I began to want to give reassuring pats on the hand to the men in my audience.) Why Perry didn’t choose to set his film in the '70s is anyone’s guess. It might’ve helped. . .a little.
Through it all, some of the performances shine through. Phylicia Rashad brings a quiet dignity (frankly, we’re happy to have anything quiet in the film) to her role as a wise and all-seeing neighbor in the walk-up where most of the characters live. Kimberly Elise, the most victimized of all the women (and that’s saying a lot here), manages to give a canny, multi-layered performance as an abused mother. Gorgeous Thandie Newton is riveting as Tangie, the building floozy—why Tangie needs to bed a new man every night is her character’s great mystery (although if you follow the film’s anvil-like themes, it’s not too hard to figure out.) Even Janet Jackson, despite her distracting plastic surgery (“she ruined her face!” someone behind me sputtered), is effective as an uptight media mogul whose hottie husband is on the “down-low.”
However, Whoopie Goldberg is perhaps too much of a cultural icon at this point to be credible as a religious zealot who terrorizes her daughters. And the boisterous Loretta Devine, always a likeable presence, seems to have been flown in from one of Perry’s Madea films.
For Colored Girls is a bit of a mess (and at 134 minutes, a long mess), but at least it’s made with passion and conviction. In the end, I guess I’d rather see a failure that was the result of caring too much than caring too little.