By Armond White
Decades after the cultural moment when black American theater was thriving, the movie For Colored Girls—Tyler Perry’s “serious” film of Ntozake Shange’s 1974 “choreo-poem”—feels like a throwback. It doesn’t revive the post-Civil Rights, Black militant spirit of aggressive entitlement felt by radicalized (urban intellectual) black women who needed to talk back to that part of the world—including Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice chauvinism—that would hold them down. Instead, Perry’s lugubrious film adaptation resembles pre-enlightenment. It is all too literally a “weepie.” Perry’s weakness for the lowest common denominator transforms both anger and affirmation into sludge, not great poetic cinema like Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Jonathan Demme’s Beloved or Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child.
Supposedly set in contemporary New York City, For Colored Girls’ story of nine intergenerational women whose lives intersect actually occurs in conceptual art territory—Coincidenceville. The litany of miseries portrays common oppression, always at the hands of deceitful men or an unseen Patriarchy. Kimberly Elise plays a mother of two who lives with a disturbed war vet; Loretta Devine plays a community counselor with middle-age man trouble; Thandie Newton plays a rapacious bartender; Phylicia Rashad is the snooping landlady in the building they share. Anika Noni Rose plays an overly trusting dance instructor; Janet Jackson an imperious magazine editor with an untrustworthy husband; Whoopi Goldberg plays a religious fanatic hovering over her teenage daughter. Tessa Thompson is a gal who hasn’t yet left home and Kerry Washington plays a social worker desperate to have a baby.
These actresses are all strong enough presences to render stage names unnecessary (the abstract rainbow-colored monikers Shange used are pointless given Perry’s realistic pretext). The rarity of seeing so many women—especially ethnically specific ones—provides the film’s only virtue. In the opening recitation, their assorted voices declaiming a common Shange verse briefly evoke an aural sense of commiseration. The versifying works better than the accompanying gauzy dance movements Perry stages. Right off, he doesn’t know how to activate a graceful, theatrical metaphor for femaleness like Almodóvar created in the choreographed opening of Talk To Her or the great Rosie Perez dance Spike Lee used to personify urban American energy in Do the Right Thing. However, the overlapping and harmonizing vocal timbres do generate a palpable womanliness for which the term “girls” seems pitifully anachronistic.
Trouble began with Perry’s title, which is truncated from the original For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Although it’s a dedication, it also segregates. This seems retrograde in the “post-racial” Obama era, conveniently harkening to the 1970s when the cultural mainstream embraced a radical chic fondness for black exclusivity that was also accusatory: It asserted a curious, exotic defiance. Today’s perverse radical chic too-readily embraces black pathology—like last year’s scandalous Precious, which Perry publicly endorsed. Here he uses a similar self-deprecating mode as both marketing strategy and, more troublingly, to wallow in the effects of racism on black female identity. This, too, is a throwback. At the same time that Perry showcases his cast of black actresses, he mires them in tears, stereotypes and primitive agit-prop from which their huge talents cannot escape.
No doubt For Colored Girls will be sold (and misread) as a triumph of feminine expression, but it’s oddly unliberating. The way dialogue lapses into poetry (“Sing a black girl’s song… Let her be born and handled warm”) clashes with the naturalistic presentation and blunt, TV-style imagery. Perry’s technique crashes these anguished women’s personal space; we’re in their faces, prying into their intimacy. He lacks the sensual, portraitist’s skill that helps Ingmar Bergman’s and Mike Leigh’s actresses seem to reveal their souls, or that made Spielberg and Demme’s films breakthroughs in black female screen iconography.
Too often the offenses these women suffer (rape, battery, betrayal, abortion, disease, the B-word) play like public service announcements. It’s the same P.C. trap that suckered naive viewers into defending the outrages in Precious as “dirty laundry.” Audiences are eager to see African-American experience reduced to tragic social issues rather than as deeply imagined life. (That’s why film culture has yet to give The Color Purple and Beloved their due.) Strangely, Perry depends on such stigmatizing in order to pass off his crude speechifying and undigested neuroses as authentic. While avoiding freaky deaky Lee Daniels’ salacious sensationalism—although a rape montage incorporating violence, opera and burnt pork chops comes close—Perry indulges the Oprah Winfrey brand of mortified indignation where female victimhood is constant. Shamelessly substituting for the truth of black American life, it is little more than tear-streaked melodrama.
Despite the cast’s good efforts, Shange’s themes of female self-denial and varieties of sexual guilt don’t ignite. Cat fights between Goldberg and Newton, Goldberg and Thompson are nearly risible, lacking the primacy of the sex-and-religion battles Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie memorably acted out in Carrie. The camera is usually too close to make Newton and Rose’s expressive physicality register properly. Elise disastrously sobs her way through one crisis after another. Macy Gray’s cameo as a crazy abortionist only lacks Mo’Nique’s gutbucket raucousness. Rashad shows wise authority, but her elderly counterpart, Devine, is often a hot mess of jumbled good intentions and weak will.
For colored men, this movie is another scandalous put-down. Perry used to know better when his own movies explored spiritual distress and brought male villains to the altar of forgiveness, as in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. But in true Oprah-mode, these men are mostly bad news. This is where Shange required updating, and Perry needed to confront marketplace hostility to the black male image—a problem bound up in the mainstream’s preference for black female suffering. Demonizing the black male as a separate problem from racism’s effect on black women keeps the denigration going. Janet Jackson’s scenes with Omari Hardwicke as her alpha male husband on the downlow makes this uncomfortably clear. Jackson’s masklike rectitude is way too haughty and solemn; their relationship is a preachy sketch that goes past maudlin to insult. Plus, Jackson’s deprived of any joy or sense of humor (including her bright family smile) that sometimes buoys Perry’s plain talk and moral sincerity. Ironically, Perry’s biggest mistake—and everything he leaves out about black male experience—is condensed in Hardwicke’s short-shrift lament, “I’m sorry for my truth.”
Perry’s quasi-feminist artifice is an Oscar ploy. It eliminates the larger social history that made The Color Purple, Beloved and even the multiracial Mother and Child so powerful. The deprivations of slavery and racism were indispensable to understanding those gender relations (check out Goldberg, Newton, Elise and Washington in those films to see the difference). When Newton laments, “Being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet,” black female complaint congratulates white liberal guilt. Such outdated pathos makes For Colored Girls’ humanism specious. When empathy and comfort finally arrive in a group hug, the film is too beat-down to feel triumphant. Once again black pathology prevails while black film art suffers—like a battered woman in a Hollywood homeless shelter.
For Colored Girls
Directed by Tyler Perry
Runtime: 134 min.
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