Review – Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” (Well, Terry McMillan Liked It!)
Undoubtedly Tyler Perry’s best work thus far; although the themes explored are definitely Tyler Perry faves. It’s a coincidence that I asked a few days ago whether or not Tyler had done his homework – essentially, whether he’s taken the time to learn the craft, if not formally, then at least, by watching a wide variety of films, past and present. I’d say the work he does here indicates that he just may have – certainly visually. I thought maybe it was that he’d hired a cinematographer he’d never used before, but, actually, Alexander Gruszynski shot 2 previous Tyler Perry films – I Can Do Bad All by Myself and Madea Goes to Jail.
The film has an attractive surface – the cast certainly assists, but there’s more to take note of here. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it stylized (although maybe by Tyler Perry’s standards it is), but there’s a definite deliberate attempt at being, dare I say, artsy; soft, mood lighting, rack-focus shots, playing with depth of field, a fluid moving camera, long takes in closeup (trusting the actors to deliver, for better and worse), unorthodox framing (for Tyler Perry anyway), interesting 2-shots, jump-cuts, even mixing in the occasional hand-held, although not-too shaky cam. Tyler pulled out the entire playbook for this one. And it mostly holds… again, visually.
I’d recommend looking at the film as a standalone work, instead of picking away at it, in a compare/contrast test with Ntozake Shange’s literary work. Those expecting a literal translation (although, at this point, I don’t see why anyone would, given all that’s been written and seen about it thus far), will be sorely disappointed. It’s not; but it doesn’t have to be. Its core themes of love, abandonment, rape, abortion, and domestic violence are evident in the film. And Shange’s voice reverberates throughout. Although, the oscillation between the characters’ natural speak (which dominates the film) and their occasional impromptu recitation of Shange’s poetic prose, mostly fails. Aside from a few stand-out performances that somehow managed to make Shange’s words sound unaffected and innate when asked to express in verse (and every actress had her 1 or 2 moments), most jaunts into metrical rhythm were jarring.
And what’s so unfortunate about those incongruous breaks is that Shange’s words are undeniably lyrical and powerful; terse, yet awesomely descriptive; like music, that they could have instead been the film’s soundtrack (and in 1 or 2 sequences in which Perry uses them in voice-over instead, the faceless utterances of the words, playing over edits of connected images, does feel like a soundtrack). You want to hear more – especially when so convincingly and pleasantly delivered, like Phylicia Rashad evoking Lady In Red (“brown braided woman with big legs and full lips…“). But instead we get snippets scattered throughout, complemented by naturalese. Ideally, Perry really should have insisted on a specific parlance from start to finish.
At least he was smart enough to know that the film’s success depends heavily on the performances. There are really no other distractions. Just powerful words and the vessels from which they come. Casting seasoned actresses was paramount, and, for the most part, the choices he made are near-exemplary. I’d even go as far as to say that there are some actual rare moments of, dare I say, brilliance in the film – notably standout performances from Kimberly Elise, Phylicia Rashad, and a deliciously haunting Macy Gray (yes that Macy Gray), which elicited applause from the mostly older, learned African American audience I screened the film with, many of whom were intimately familiar with the Shange’s original work.
Academy Award nominations in the Best Supporting Actress category for Rashad and/or Elise (a longshot for Gray, who just doesn’t have the pedigree and awareness the other 2 have), should be expected. I’d be surprised if one of them wasn’t nominated actually – although I haven’t researched the landscape for who their competition might be.
At the other extreme, perhaps Perry’s most egregious casting decision came in the form of one Ms Janet Jackson, who seemed to simply channel every past performance from previous Tyler Perry films she’s been in – both Why Did I Get Married movies. She’s practically a mirror of Dr Patricia Agnew (overly dramatic-isms – a caricature of the person she’s supposed to be), and her presence here weighs down the curve. Ms Janet really needs to do a comedy next – screwball preferably.
In between, you’d find average to above average performances on the approval matrix from Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine, and Whoopi Goldberg (although she sometimes seemed to be trying a little too hard). Kerry Washington was Kerry Washington. She seems to play the same character in almost everything I’ve seen her in, and it later occurred to me that she really hasn’t shown very much range. Thandie Newton’s performance was perplexing to me. I got the impression that the director didn’t know exactly who she was, making it seem as if she had a multiple personality disorder. She’s Ms Ghetto-fab one minute, and rarefied the next. Don’t get me wrong, I actually think Thandie is a good actress. I’d just say that, in this case, the director wasn’t thorough in his prep, and thus the performance wavered.
The supporting male cast felt like an afterthought. I understand that the men were clearly secondary here, after all Shange’s original work was testosterone-free – physically anyway. However, the actors cast in those roles just weren’t distinct enough to be memorable. They all just seemed like 2-dimensional cardboard cutouts, devoid of any real substance; and I can’t help but feel that a better group of actors could have given these characters some weight, as despicable as a lot of them are. Be despicable (I’m certainly not challenging that), but be memorable, Michael Ealy (whose portrayal of an abusive husband to Kimberly Elise’s Crystal, wasn’t at all convincing; in fact, I’d say that she felt more capable of menace than he did, and I would be willing to believe that she could actually beat him up). Chew up the words and even some scenery, Mr Omari Hardwick. And Hill Harper as our resident good black man is a bore.
As is, most of them are essentially uninteresting, which is somewhat miraculous, because, as I’ve heard a lot of actors say, playing villains can actually be more of a thrill than not, presenting an actor with juicy opportunities to explore the darker side of human nature; and without the villain, there’s no obstacle for the hero to overcome, no malevolence to defeat so that the audience can cheer in satisfaction of good winning over evil. Granted, the evil doesn’t necessarily have to take physical form; it could very well be within the protagonist, as he/she fights to overcome him/herself.
And that’s partly the case in For Colored Girls, as the women are also held accountable for their individual plights, with the message, in the end, preaching self-realization, responsibility and empowerment, over blame, ensuring that nobody walks away wid all of your stuff
So, for any men concerned that the film is one lengthy man-bashing fest, it’s a reductive allegation. The original work is much more complex than that to be described so crudely. Unfortunately, Tyler’s handling of his male actors/characters in this film adaptation only aids in reinforcing preconceived notions. But I’ll say that, as a man, I wasn’t at all squirming or revolted.
Despite the age, impact and longevity enjoyed by the original literary work, its film adaptation can’t help but feel like a rehashing, and that’s partly due to the fact that we’ve seen a number of films over the last 20 or so years, centered on groups of African American women facing somewhat similar hurdles, with black men frequently being directly responsible, or at least sharing some of the burden. Thus the film simply doesn’t resonate as much as it may have if it were produced 20+ years ago, the way a film like The Color Purple did, and still does for many. It certainly doesn’t have the impact nor carry the same kind of weight Shange’s choreopeom did when it was initially unleashed onto the world in the mid 1970s.
So, you’ve seen this before; and while some might say that the concerns explored in the film are still very much prevalent in the African American experience, broadly speaking, and need to be continually addressed on film, the message within starts to lose its poignancy, especially if each successive film doesn’t really advance the conversation or presentation any further than the preceding films already have. By some accounts, this film should be as much of a landmark event as Shange’s original work was roughly 30 years ago. But it just whimpers instead of roars. It plays out like a weightier Waiting To Exhale, with stronger performances. While the melodrama is tame compared to Perry’s previous works, it doesn’t completely escape the soap operatic universe that’s Perry’s milieu.
But, as we already know, the film is Oscar bait for Lionsgate. Originally scheduled to be released in January, they must have felt solidly that the film could make a bit of a splash during awards season, so they moved up its release date. The performances in it are exactly the kind that Academy voters seem to love to congratulate. It’s not The Hours, with Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore, which was rewarded, but it’s that similar kind of woman-centered pathology play, loaded with overemotional, if stagy dramatic turns by superb actresses.
It’s not Julie Dash’s Daughters Of The Dust, but I’d say it strives for a similar kind of black feminism.
There is something pathetic about the fact that this is the sole black film that most of us have been looking forward to seeing all year – an annual occurrence it seems; there’s usually that single “black film” that’s on most must-see lists, that polarizes audiences when it’s eventually released. The fact that there’s a dearth of work (both on the studio and indie front) in circulation has been addressed enough times that I won’t bother going into that here. But don’t walk into into the theater looking for God or the devil. You’ll likely find neither.
Although, I’d say if you’re expecting and wanting to hate it, you probably will. Some seem to have already made up their minds, even though they haven’t seen the film yet. The review from The Hollywood Reporter, I can now say, was unnecessarily harsh. It’s nowhere near as terrible as that reviewer made it out to be. I’d certainly agree when he says that an adaptation of the material wasn’t going to be easy, and that whomever took on the challenge would need to put some “creative sweat” into it, to make the film a comparable piece of work to the literary title it’s based on. But, as I stated earlier, you’d cause yourself less frustration if you saw the film as a work in its own right, instead of looking for anything close to a literal translation of Shange’s original play. It’s still a Tyler Perry film (and all that saying so suggests), although it’s as unlike a Tyler Perry film as anything he’s made before.
So… overall, definitely Tyler Perry’s best work thus far; but ultimately just an OK film with a few standout performances. When Spike Lee made his Malcolm X movie, I recall hearing critics say that he did so too early in his career, and they would have preferred to see an older, blacker, more mature, seasoned filmmaker in Spike Lee write and direct a movie about Malcolm X. I’d say the same thing here – assuming of course that Tyler Perry is at all interested in growing as a filmmaker (and I’m guessing he is, with his decision to direct this particular work; so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt). And no, before you put finger to keyboard to challenge me, I’m not comparing Tyler Perry’s work to Spike Lee’s.
For Colored Girls is an R-rated film – a first for Tyler Perry – but aside from glimpses of a rape, Perry keeps much of the ghastly visual stuff off-camera, so you’re left to fill in the blanks with your imagination.
Ntozake Shange, who was present for the screening, speaking both before and after, saying that she’s already seen the film several times, gives it her seal of approval. And Terry McMillan (who has a long history with Shange) was also present, seeing it for the first time, and, being her usual blunt self, said that she fully expected to despise the film, but actually appreciated the effort – for whatever that’s worth.
Why Lionsgate chose to release 2 of the weaker clips from the movie in pre-release marketing is baffling. I can guarantee you that there are certainly more impressive scenes that would have been better sells, and might have even ratcheted up excitement in audiences, instead of having the opposite effect; although, maybe that was their strategy – release the less-than-stellar clips, reduce audience expectations, and then wow them when they see it?
I still really would be interested in what Nzingha Stewart’s version looked and sounded like, but I doubt it’ll ever see the light of day. She’s listed as executive producer in this, by the way, though how much actual influence she had on what ended up on screen isn’t publicly known. But, don’t fret; this certainly doesn’t have to be the last film adaptation of the work. Some time down the road, another filmmaker might decide to give us their own interpretation of it, with inevitable comparison’s to Perry’s version accompanying its release.
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