(by Dustin Putman
A cinematic reinvisioning of Ntozake Shange's 1975 Tony-nominated play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," "For Colored Girls" arrives with an abbreviated title, a stunning pedigree of actors, and a visual scope that belies its theatrical roots in a way that the verbose screenplay not always does. Written and directed by Tyler Perry, the film is overflowing with auspicious highs interspersed with a few immense lows. At once powerful, operatic, melodramatically overblown and self-indulgent, the complex tapestry Perry has created and his, quite frankly, amazing ensemble keep the viewer glued to the screen even when the issues-heavy plot stretches plausibility, the dialogue rambles, and its propensity for abrupt poetic soliloquies spoken by the characters call occasionally negative attention to themselves. Still, it's better to reach for the stars and not always succeed than to lazily play it safe, and "For Colored Girls" is nothing if not courageous. Article continues below
For a movie made by a male filmmaker, men do not come off well at all in the tough world its female leads occupy. In fact, most of their problems stem from the actions of the less-fair sex. With the exception of a perfectly supportive boyfriend for social worker Kelly (Kerry Washington), the guys on view are all drunks, rapists, murderers, leeches, thieves and adulterers. Even one of the key male figures who never physically appears is an incestuous child molester. Whatever message this intends to impart on the audience comes off as blatantly narrow-minded and chauvinistic, no matter how steeped in feminism the picture is at its core. Overlooking this troublesome area, the multilayered plot is never less than absorbing, its characters vividly conceived, their conflicts tough, urgent, tragic yet hopeful.
The epicenter from which all revolves is a New York City apartment building, lorded over by the nosey, matronly Gilda (Phylicia Rashad). On one side of her lives Crystal (Kimberly Elise), an abused wife and mother working as dutiful assistant to snooty, upscale fashion mag editor Joanna (Janet Jackson). On the opposite side of Gilda resides bartender Tangie (Thandie Newton), bringing a different man home every night and regularly sparring with devoutly religious mother Alice (Whoopi Goldberg). Tangie's teenage sister Nyla (Tessa Thompson) has recently lost her virginity and just discovered she's pregnant—something that Alice will not tolerate if she finds out. Meanwhile, Nyla's bubbly dance teacher Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) is hopeful about a new romantic relationship until her suitor's ugly true colors come out and turn her into an empty shell of her former self. Finally, living down the hall from Tangie and Crystal is soft-hearted nurse Juanita (Loretta Devine), a non-profit volunteer who can tell it like it is to the best of them, but can't seem to shake her longtime louse of a boyfriend. Through ample tragedies and miraculous triumphs, these women—some strangers, some acquaintances, some linked by blood or profession—will ultimately come together just when they need someone most.
Despite its exclusory title, "For Colored Girls" is a sonnet seemingly speaking to all women. Interlacing the lives of nine of them, the camera following one before steadicamming over to follow the next, the film's intoxicating free-floating style reminds of "Nashville"-era Robert Altman by way of Richard Linklater's "Slacker," or a darker "Steel Magnolias" mixed with Baz Luhrman's "Romeo + Juliet." A musical with poetry numbers standing in for songs is an imaginative and neat flourish, but one that also threatens to overwhelm the heart of the drama, requiring characters to break into ponderous, impassioned monologues when, in any conventional movie, fewer, more straightforward words would achieve the same thing. Some of them work—an early scene introducing Nyla as she tells her dance troupe in poetic verse about her graduation night while doing stretching exercises is utterly mesmerizing—while later ones call too much attention to themselves and take the viewer out of the story. A few unwanted laughs come in sequences that in a regular film would be nothing but heartbreaking, though there also are several genuinely poignant moments, too. This style of storytelling, with the poetry lifted from the play, isn't without stumbles, but all in all is so different and fresh that even when it fails it still remains a watchable curiosity piece.
One good thing about the film's rhythmic aspirations is its fusion of the realistic and the abstract so that when one too many big, terrible things happen to the characters in succession, the viewer is able to buy into them anyway. The characters, drama queens all of them but most sympathetic or at least redemptive in the long run, are put through the veritable wringer by writer-director Tyler Perry. By the same token, the performances—all of them—are outstanding, the whole of them forming what may be the strongest film ensemble of the year. It's impossible to narrow out any of them because they are at the top of their games. Phylicia Rashad (2010's "Just Wright") is humorous and comforting, but also bluntly forthright, as Gilda, presiding over the apartment building she manages and offering advice whether her tenants want it or not. As the loose, rough-and-tumble Tangie, Thandie Newton (2009's "2012") tears up her every scene with a ferocity only superficially shielding the pain from her past. Kimberly Elise (2007's "The Great Debaters") is fearless, going to some pitch-black places in her portrayal of Crystal, a woman who should have left her violent husband years ago and now must pay the price of her decision to stay. Anika Noni Rose (2006's "Dreamgirls") brings sobering depth to the cheerful Yasmine, who is drained of her life force when she is the victim of a sex crime. Loretta Devine (2010's "Death at a Funeral") lends her signature sassiness to Juanita, but behind the humor is a certain touching levity that signals how much her character has had to face and the warmth of heart she has managed to retain.
As the scared, steered-wrong Nyla, Tessa Thompson (2006's "When a Stranger Calls") should certainly make a name for herself after her wonderfully nuanced work here, going from free-spirited to distraught to lonely without batting an eye. Janet Jackson (2000's "The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps") stuns as Joanna, an all-business type who slowly sees the error of her ways while edging closer to the discovery that her husband has been hiding a secret that may cost her much more than just a marriage. Who knew Jackson was capable of so much as an actress? A scene in the third act between her and her husband stings with a rawness that proves unforgettable. Not to be counted out, Kerry Washington (2008's "Lakeview Terrace") burrows into her part as Kelly, a social worker dealing with the new knowledge that she can't have children just as she is faced with guilt over not doing something about a harsh domestic situation she encountered in one of her cases before it was too late. And as Alice, Whoopi Goldberg (2001's "Rat Race") gets her best film role in at least a decade, relishing the chance to play against-type as a woman whose rigid beliefs keep her from being able to understand and connect with daughters Tangie and Nyla.
"For Colored Girls" isn't able to match the searing heights of 2009's "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," but they exist within the same milieu and share similar sensibilities. For Tyler Perry, this is his moment to prove that he is capable of so much more than his popular Madea character, crafting a piece of work both ambitious and aching as he speaks on behalf of the trials and tribulations, no matter how amplified, that women of all colors and stripes often face. Spare details do admittedly go overboard and subtlety is not a top priority, as in further proof that an onscreen cough must always lead to a life-threatening disease, or the choice to dress Yasmine like an old school marm to symbolize her broken spirit, or a scene where a character confronts a corpse on the slab and proceeds to slap it. Big, brash and heartfelt, "For Colored Girls" flinches not an inch, confidently unapologetic in its broader flourishes and missteps and somehow even more admirable because of them. Over the course of the narrative, each of the women (save for Alice, who is permanently stuck in her ways) allow themselves to grow, to admit mistakes, and to begin the difficult process of healing. Given the option of defeat, they move forward. We all must, or what's the point of living?