Rape, abortion, murder, child abuse and incest — the sensitive themes of “For Colored Girls” are all in a day’s work for Tyler Perry, who (shockingly) has chosen to make a film chronicling the troubles of abused women instead of another cross-dressing Madea family fest.
“For Colored Girls”
At Quality 16 and Rave
For the past eight years, Perry has churned out film after film about the Brown family with the regularity of a young Woody Allen — films widely panned by critics, yet often celebrated by black audiences. So despite the film’s largely experimental nature, we shouldn’t expect Perry’s latest, an adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s off-Broadway poem-play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf,” to be any different from his previous works.
But it is. It’s true that the gimmicky color palette, with each woman embodying a certain shade of the spectrum, is so frustratingly heavyhanded it makes you want to throw something at the screen every time a tear-stained character makes another reference to a rainbow. And it’s true that the bizarre metaphysical monologues, adapted from extracts from each of Shange’s 20 poems, can be rather excruciating, especially as the film whirls to a close. But it’s also true that there are moments in “Girls” so poignant — so staggeringly sad — that you might actually find a tear unexpectedly slipping out of your eye.
But this could just stem from the content itself. Shots of a woman’s heartbroken face as her babies perilously fall out of her eyesight, or a shivering young girl hesitantly bending her legs open to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy resonate with a rawness unseen in much of modern cinema. At times, the emotions on these women’s faces ring so genuine, they seem positively Greek in nature, harkening back to Sophocles’s plays of passive heroines shedding tears for the deeds for which they were never fully responsible.
Or maybe the film’s success derives from the performances. As the eight women slide in and out of each other’s lives — some only playing peripheral roles to other’s storylines — they have little time to be memorable. But memorable they are. Standouts include a feral Thandie Newton (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) ravenously asserting her right to sex for pleasure, a richly comedic Loretta Devine (“Crash”) as a condom-doling nurse and a sunken-eyed Kerry Washington (“Ray”) as a child services worker who just wants a baby of her own. But really, there’s not a misstep from the entire cast, featuring Anna Wintour-like magazine editor Janet Jackson (“Why Did I Get Married?”), broken housewife Kimberly Elise (“Diary of a Mad Black Woman”), cult initiate Whoopi Goldberg (“Ghost”), dance teacher Anika Noni Rose (“The Princess and the Frog”) and young hopeful Tessa Thompson (“When a Stranger Calls”). Together, these actresses push past the overdramatic dialogue in order to portray women truly afflicted with sorrows and happiness.
But maybe, just maybe, a large part of the film’s effectiveness comes from Perry himself. Say what you want about the man’s lack of directorial subtlety, but he manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that could have arisen from such a venture by letting the material speak for itself. “For Colored Girls” might be soapy or melodramatic — in fact, it’s almost overwhelmingly so — but Perry’s vision manages to cohere the unwinding narratives. He doesn’t hold back from what he has to say, and because of it, he shows his willingness to experiment with the medium, to varied — but mostly successful — results.
“For Colored Girls” may forever hold the stigma of an “Oprah’s Book Club” choice and, of course, the stigma of being a Tyler Perry movie (from which it will never recover, unfortunately). But to classify the work as another sad, racially driven Perry film seems unfair. Effective films are never wholly defined by the director behind the camera or the race of the actresses onscreen, and despite its unapologetic melodrama and occasional disconnect from the modern world, “For Colored Girls” is an effective film. It might not win an Oscar because of it, but at least it can go to sleep knowing it’s better than “The Blind Side.”