SYNOPSIS: Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton and Whoopi Goldberg head up an all-star cast in a vibrant world where friends and strangers dream, fear, cry, and laugh out loud in an attempt to find their trueselves. Adapted by writer/director Tyler Perry from Ntozake Shange's acclaimed choreopoem, this gripping film paints an unforgettable portrait of what it means to be a woman of color in the modern world.
Though he’s somewhat of a box-office attraction in the United States, Tyler Perry isn’t quite known, if at all, in this part of the world- primarily because his movies are built around and by extension appeal largely to African-Americans. For this reason, ‘For Colored Girls’- the big-screen adaptation of Ntozake Shange's Tony-nominated play- should be right up his alley, seeing as how it deals with a whole host of issues that modern-day black women are facing.
Unfortunately, this attempt at transiting into more mature territory from his usual ‘Madea-an’ comedies is an utter misfire on too many counts, and would have been unwatchable were it not for the stunning performances from the ensemble cast. Whether borne out of arrogance or ignorance, Perry’s ambitions and consequent determination for aiming far and above his filmmaking abilities are admirable, but the end product bears witness of how he is clearly out of his depth.
To be sure, Shange's theatrical poem was not going to lend itself easily to a big-screen treatment. There is neither a straightforward plot nor defined characters in it- rather, the self-dubbed ‘choreopoem’ consists of some 20 poems brought to life by choreographed movement and music, with seven women identified only by the colours of their dresses reciting the racially-charged issues of domestic abuse, rape and abortion.
In his adaptation, Perry has taken these seven ladies, added two, and then given them each a sob story. All but one live in the same grimy tenement apartment building in Harlem, including the sexually promiscuous Tangie (Thandie Newton), her accidentally pregnant younger sister Nyla (Tessa Thompson), their Bible-toting mother Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), a physically abused wife and mother of two kids Crystal (Kimberly Elise), and a dancer Yasmine (Anika Nola Rose) raped by someone she thought of as a close friend.
There’s nothing trivial about what these women are going through, and we are sure that there are real women who are going through similarly depressing circumstances or made to endure similar fates as the characters in Perry’s movie. Nonetheless, Perry does his characters nor his movie any favours by taking a sledgehammer to every emotional scene in the movie. So heavy-handed and melodramatic is his approach that he drains all life out of these scenes, and the effect is akin to hanging a lead weight around his characters as well as his audience.
Worse still, he clumsily tries to integrate Shange’s elaborate emotionally-charged prose into his own naturalistically-written dialogue. The effect is jarring to say the least, when the various characters take turns at bursting inexplicably into allegories that fit in theatre but are completely out-of-place in a film. Most of these interludes also take place with scenes that cut across several characters united in agony or sorrow by their own unique situation, but the editing between the disparate scenes is unwieldy and pronounced to say the least.
The greater tragedy here is the committed performances of his excellently assembled cast. Frequent collaborator Janet Jackson gives a subtle performance as a high-powered magazine executive faced with a crumbling marriage and an awakening to the tragedies of her fellow racial compatriots. Lesser-known actors Elise and Rose are surprisingly good, holding their own with nuanced portrayals of their characters’ horrific circumstances against Perry’s mawkish tendencies.
Pity then that the film doesn’t live up to its potential despite the grade-A acting from some of the finest African-American actresses in Hollywood today. Yes, Perry deserves credit for championing Shange’s play to the big screen, but his over-estimation of his own abilities shows up aplenty, leaving this adaptation a leaden exercise in melodrama. And as a result of his missteps, Perry also misses the opportunity to allow the themes and issues portrayed in Shange’s play to reach out to a wider and broader audience; instead, clumsy as it is, this is yet another Perry movie likely to appeal to his usual demographic- for the lack of a better word, for coloured audiences only.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio reproduces the dialogues clearly, which is all that matters for this talky drama. Visuals are ok for a DVD release, but strangely, the movie has been split into two separate tracks at the halfway mark, so don’t be surprised if there’s a slight delay between tracks.