For Oprah Winfrey Fans Who’ve Considered Victimhood When Too Many Coincidences Are Enough

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


For Colored Girls


Directed by Tyler Perry


Runtime: 134 min.

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 film breakthrough 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.
(Devine’s sweet-natured reading of the famous monologue, "Somebody almost
walked off with all of my stuff," flirts with Mammyness.)

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 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."

Back in the ’80s, theater prodigy George Wolfe satirized Shange’s sanctimony in his own play The Colored Museum. His "Mama on the Couch" skit mocked the clichés of black misery that have now become sacrosanct and that Perry’s For Colored Girls reinforces.
Perry turns politicized theatrical lyricism into cinematic hokum. His
major trope is to move the camera in tighter as his tormented actresses
drip tears. Perry provides less sensual and historical context for these
sob stories than the soap-opera-style The Joy Luck Club and the mediocre Waiting to Exhale. And nothing here compares to the astonishing feminist bravery of Jennifer Lopez’s pussy speech in Gigli—a
scene that was the true heir to Shange’s boldness. This throwback to a
dated form of female testimony isn’t nearly sufficient. Even the first Why Did I Get Married? was more believable.

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.

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