“Dark phrases of womanhood, having never been a girl…”
Those words open one of the most inspirational and unique plays ever performed on Broadway, Ntozake Shange’s "choreo-poem," for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.
It is also the opening to Tyler Perry’s cinematic interpretation, For Colored Girls. Beautiful music scores a montage that introduces the women as they recite the opening monologue from their various positions in life. It’s a promising start, but the follow-through does not live up to the hype.
Tyler Perry has taken on too much in this endeavor. Not only did he produce and direct the movie, he also wrote the screenplay. It appears that he has worked and re-worked his piece so much that he was unable to step away and edit.
Anyone familiar with the play will understand why it would be difficult to adapt into a movie. The characters do not have names or any identifying characteristics, other than their colors and their stories. There is no set time or place and no real dialogue.
Surprisingly, Tyler Perry does a commendable job filling in the blanks of these characters. He establishes relationships between the women, assigns them names, ages, social status and idiosyncrasies that are appropriate, and even inspired.
The dialogue written to support the monologues is natural. Unfortunately, the monologues are another story. Poetry in everyday conversation is often uncomfortable to watch. Perry does such a good job establishing some the tougher characters that to have them turn around and recite these eloquent and wordy monologues is just odd. They interrupt the flow of the film and, for those not familiar with the play, make the storyline difficult to follow.
It seems as though the movie was written and then the monologues were crammed in as an afterthought. Some are inserted in conversation, others delivered as an aside with overly dramatic cinematography. The result is a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts. Perry would have done well to learn from the original, and made a choice one way or the other.
He also takes creative license to not only add characters, but also storylines. While the additional characters aid in the progression of the narrative, the additional storylines do nothing but add even more sorrow to a script that is already sad in tone.
The performances are the saving grace. The all-star cast, which includes heavy-hitters Phylicia Rashad, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, and Anika Noni Rose, delivers Oscar-caliber performances. Whoopi Goldberg (who at one point wanted to revive the original play on Broadway) provides much-needed comic relief, but still brings the drama when it’s time. Loretta Devine is her usual funny, relatable, effervescent self. Tessa Thompson has breakout performance. Even Macy Gray is impressive in a smaller role.
Janet Jackson is one-dimensional, the result of bad writing from Perry, and not necessarily a reflection of her acting ability. She’s given one monologue from the play and she delivers it earnestly. Kerry Washington is also robbed. She does a great job with what she’s given, which unfortunately is not much, especially against the high drama of the rest of the film.
The men―Hill Harper, Michael Ealy, Omari Hardwick and Khalil Kain―are little more than props. They have few lines and seem uneasy listening to one-sided conversations led by the ladies. The exception is Hardwick, who has what could be considered the male version of a for colored girls monologue. He delivers it well, though like much of Perry’s added drama, it feels unnecessary.
Some of the scenes are absolutely gut-wrenching and difficult to watch, and casts a ne’er-do-well shadow on men, a criticism that the play received when it opened in 1975. It seems that Tyler Perry wanted to create a film that explores the worst parts of being a black woman in America. He sets you up in the beginning for the most tragic outcome possible. Whether this stays true to the tone of the play is questionable.
Did Tyler Perry take on too much or is it simply impossible to turn this great play into a great movie? The performances are astounding and could garner some award nominations. It is thought-provoking and encourages intelligent conversation, which is an achievement in itself, considering much of what's out there in the multiplexes.
Despite its shortcomings, For Colored Girls is an admirable effort. Any theater geek worth his or her salt should be curious how the movie holds up to the play.
Indulge that curiosity.