Tyler Perry’s histrionic For Colored Girls, adapted from Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed Obie-winning stage play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, is purple in more ways than one. Though its milieu and we’re-all-in-this-together spirit of female solidarity suggests 227 and The Women of Brewster Place, its feminist didacticism more clearly recalls Daughters of the Dust, only it’s more emotionally forceful than Julie Dash’s profoundly banal saga of Afrocentricy and matriarchy. That forcefulness, though, does not always equate to lucidness.
This crazy quilt patches together the melodramas of a dozen or so women united by their color and the bad things men have done to them. Among them: Robe Rouge editor Jo (Janet Jackson), whose frigidness suggests a response to her beau’s DL lifestyle; Crystal (Kimberly Elise), her assistant, who endures her veteran husband’s physical and psychological abuse, perhaps because of what the war did to his mental state; Kelly (Kerry Washington), a social worker who can’t have children because of what some bygone STD did to her fallopian tubes; Tangie (Thandie Newton), who can’t stop sleeping with men because her daddy touched her when she was little; and the curiously Latin-obsessed Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), who invites the wrong man over for a Cuban dinner one night. There will be blood, rape, HIV, an exorcism, even a botched abortion (performed by a grinning, chain-smoking Macy Gray)—just about everything bad that can happen to a black woman. Perhaps the female circumcision scene got cut for length.
Because Perry is so fixated on the ugliness of what men do to women, African-American sexuality ends up feeling repugnant even when the sex in the film doesn’t lead to violence: Except for a pathetic Tangie half-revealing her exhausted tatas through a nightgown in a characteristic fit of rage and self-pity, Perry largely shoots his black bodies from afar, always suggesting dirtiness and shame. Even Tangie’s men, most of them buff studs who want exactly what she wants—to get off—suggest predators in their body language, their unrealistic judgment calls seemingly lobbed at their playmate for no other reason than for her to squeal that she can do as they do. Such is this story’s very limited view of female agency that the next-door saint played by Phylicia Rashad eventually comes to her rescue, never disagreeing with Tangie’s view of her sexuality in relation to men, but saying that it’s definitely something that she needs to get out of her system. Grown-up women, apparently, don’t fuck like men.
In Shange’s play, every women is assigned her own color of the rainbow, but aside from the corny opening title sequence, in which a black female body is seen pirouetting behind different-colored sheer fabrics, the conceit goes nowhere. This is because Perry has no gift for complexity—no visual sophistication or sense of reality. He makes legit New York City streets seem like sets, extras look like obvious props, danger contrived. When Nyla (Tessa Thompson) mopes her way toward her abortion, sans the mother (a horrid Whoopi Goldberg) who accompanied her sister Tangie to the same place long ago, she travels from a perfectly safe-seeming Harlem street and down into a building’s below-ground alleyway as if through a portal into an Upper East Sider’s warped notion of where “they” live: men throwing dice, drug-addled women playing chess, and a lunatic woman barking louder than the pit bull that guards the doorway into the abortionist’s chamber.
For Colored Girls’s undiluted hysteria would be completely obscene if it weren’t so unintentionally hilarious. It isn’t news that Perry is no cinematic lyricist, but to call this style theatrical or televisual insults the great artists of the stage and small screen. (Just about the only consistent visual touch in the film is the unfortunate sight of the female face, even when it isn’t looking through a door’s peephole, getting the wide-angle treatment.) Tyler wishes for the seamlessness of Altman’s The Company, a beautiful commentary on life as a constant mode of performance, but when he cuts to Nyla and her teacher, Yasmine, in ballet class, or from some frenetic new episode in one of his character’s lives to an opera attended by Jo and her hubby, it’s to emphasize little more than the fact that his story is full of nothing but drama—and it makes you want to wail, all Mary J. Blige-like, for no more of it.
One caveat: the story’s close-to-awesome spoken-word monologues. These always-jarring speeches recall the lush emotional feeling of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu’s def poetry—a little purple like Maya Angelou’s worst writing, perhaps, but striking for their humor (finally!) and bold expression of female perseverance. Though Perry may struggle to visually incorporate the speeches fluidly into the narrative of the film, these flights of esoteric fancy are heroically sold by his committed actresses (most notably Elise, Goldberg not so much). And yet, even these moments are not without their unfortunate implications. Nyla, inexplicably wallflowerish throughout the film, explains through poetry and dance early on how she got with more than one man at the same time (maybe it’s how she got pregnant, or maybe she’s lying); her rhythm is sexy, but you wonder why the film must insist that women can only be strong in the absence of men.