by: Sean Lechowicz
“For Colored Girls”, based on Ntozake Shange’s poetic 1975 play of the same name, tests director Tyler Perry’s ability as a filmmaker. He is best known for adapting his own plays and hasn’t tackled another writer’s work up to this point. Although occasionally powerful, the film proves that Perry doesn’t quite have the chops writing material bereft of loudmouthed cross dressers.
The ensemble film consists of several African-American women, all of whom are connected to each other in varying ways. Amongst the cast is Jo (Janet Jackson), a hardened magazine editor with marital problems, her assistant Crystal (Kimberly Elise), an emotionally and physically battered mother of two, and Crystal’s neighbor Tangie (Thandie Newton), a promiscuous bully who hooks up her younger sister (Tessa Thompson) with an amateur abortionist.
To his credit, Perry took a beloved play that consisted only of poems and gave it a narrative backbone. Through out the film, each of the eight main actresses breaks into a polished monologue, as if to personally address the audience. The issue with incorporating poetry into the film is that Perry doesn’t warn the audience when standard conversation transforms into a soliloquy. He shoots the poems no different from the rest of the film, but these moments need to stick out in order to avoid schmaltz.
Each character’s voice is distinct and the actresses employed to portray them are appropriately cast. Despite this fact, a lot of the writing is clunky and big. Before one of Tangie’s many sexual conquests, her male suitor asks how much the act will cost. Offended that he takes her for a lady of the night, she launches into an in-your-face diatribe about the double standard between genders. Men are applauded for racking up a large number of partners, while women are chastised and called ‘sluts’. How many times has this point been debated? The double standard is implicit the moment he offers her money. Tangie just wasted her breath telling the audience what they had easily deduced.
Perry undoubtedly has a knack for performance directing. Being able to get such a weighty performance out of an otherwise non-actor like Jackson speaks to his abilities. Each actress holds her own with such heavy material, but it is Elise as Crystal who really unleashes an emotional pile driver on the audience. She plays the role of a battered woman who believably loves the man she’s with. Crystal isn’t weak; she’s just had a history with her husband spanning many decades. It’s refreshing to see an assaulted female who isn’t portrayed as naïve.
Adapting a performance piece made up entirely of poetry onto film is ambitious of Perry. Although Mr. Perry still deserves respect for having the gall to take a stab at it, “For Colored Girls” remains a missed opportunity.