For Colored Girls
Directed by: Tyler Perry
Written by: Tyler Perry (screenplay), Ntozake Shange (play)
Starring: Janet Jackson, Kimberly Elise, Phylicia Rashad, and Kerry Washington
It was hard watching the latest film from the controversial and wildly successful Tyler Perry without the expectation that at any moment Madea, an old black woman that Perry performs as in drag, would interrupt the tension by bursting through the wall like Kool-Aid Man. That character, the subject of backlash from other modern black filmmakers like Spike Lee who say it recalls early stereotypes of blacks on screen, often struts into Perry films with attitude and comedy to break the melodramatic tension.
There is no Madea in For Colored Girls. In fact, there is very little at all to break apart the tension created by the struggling lives of these 9 African American women, who deal with everything from rape, abortion, and infidelity over the course of the film’s two-plus hours. Perry’s adaptation is drawn from an award-winning play by Ntozake Shange and is structured around poetic recitations of these horrific events.
Needless to say, the concept alone sounds unfilmmable. In the hands of Mr. Madea, it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. And yet, For Colored Girls moves from vignette to vignette rather fluidly. The opening alone is a thing of beauty, skipping to all of the principle characters with a beautiful string of images and poetry. This first scene shows us that each of these characters represent a color, collectively representing different struggles of womanhood.
As always happens with these type of character collage movies in the wake of Crash, some of the stories are more interesting or better acted than others. Kimberly Elise gives the film’s strongest performance by far as Crystal, turning in an Oscar-worthy portrayal of a besieged mother dealing with a devastating loss at the hands of her abusive boyfriend. The pain in her eyes is so fully realized that it practically lights the screen on fire.
The story connects these women through their pain and, more importantly, their healing. There are many moments of unspeakable sadness, like watching Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) doll herself up for a date and then be brutally raped by that date in her own apartment. We don’t watch the rape from a wide angle so we can see the act; instead it is presented to us with a close-up of her face, drained of hope and watching the minutes tick forward on the clock with agonizing slowness.
Janet Jackson, Loretta Divine, Kerry Washington, Whoopie Goldberg, Thandie Newton, Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad comprise the rest of the colored girls that fill the narrative of this film. There are weak links at times, like Jackson’s penchant for doing a complete imitation of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, but for the most part this is an adequate ensemble. Rashad brings welcome calm to often thunderous bursts of melodrama, and Washington brings an equally welcome level-headedness to the chaos.
All of the women suffer, though not always like Yasmine and Crystal. Some are merely facing hard truths in a non-physical fashion. What’s important is the scope of that suffering and the redemption the characters find within it. This is by no means a perfect film, and is often filled with the overbearing theatrics and penchant for overindulging in drama that Perry has been brutally and often fairly criticized for in the past.
For Colored Girls is a distinctly mature work, even a somewhat pleasant surprise. The poetic way it connects the lives of its women and its unflinching examination of grotesque social issues makes it by far Tyler Perry’s best work. Sure, it’s filled with its share of soapbox preaching and missteps in narrative structure, but it’s a start.