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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.

34 comments to Review – Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” (Well, Terry McMillan Liked It!)

  • Sergio

    So what you’re saying is that I wasn’t COMPLETELY nuts when I gave it a postive review. I still have at least some of my faculties left. We can quibble about things here and there like Thandie Newton’s performance, but on the whole it’s not bad film at all.

  • Sergio wasn’t completely nuts folks! There I said it :)

    I forgot to mention that after the screening it was announced that a Broadway revival of the play was guaranteed for summer/fall 2011, with India Arie and Taraji P. Henson already attached.

    Also, the book is being reissued with a new foreward by Shange, including photo stills from the film (I got a signed copy from Shange myself).

  • I was leery of The Hollywood Reporter’s review – they usually exaggerate anyway. And even though I never thought’d be a Black man-bashing film I’m glad to hear that,

    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.

    Still, the fact that the male characters are so hollow is sad, though I guess since its not about them he didn’t care a bit. Wonder if Nzingha would’ve done that?

    All in all, I’m actually looking forward to seeing it next weekend, marking the second time ever that I’m paying to see a Tyler Perry movie.

  • Patra Reynolds-Brown

    “don’t walk into the theater looking for God or the devil. You’ll likely find neither.” thank for the review. this line summed it up for me.

  • Now, I’m really anxious to see it. My only problem, even if I “like” it, I really was aiming to “love” it. A work like this should be in the “love” category. It should be an unforgettable experience. After adding up ALL the reviews I’ve read thus far, that’s not likely to happen.

  • Tony

    If this film is re-shot or the work/material is touched up by someone else it’ll be a good time. Maybe 10 years at least.

    Studios really feel the need to be fresh and new for the time being. Although they love the rehash of dusting off so many oldies. Take to mind the fight over Alexander the Great with Oliver Stone getting the green over Baz Luhrmann. The first black president film with the dueling Chris’, Tucker & Rock.

    They only went with one. Even when Stone’s Alexander was awful and didn’t muster much coin. Head of State didn’t quite make a large splash. But still I hoped they would have given Tucker a shot.

    It will be a while, a good while, until we see this film remade. Should they remake Precious? There was suppose to be a movie for the Color Purple Musical, but no dice.

  • Harlepolis

    Fuck Terry McMillan.

  • Harlepolis

    Ok, it wouldn’t be right to leave that statement alone without some explanation.

    But Terry has her hands FULL when it comes to stigmatizing the image of black women(and men) in her novels just as much as Terry did.

    I don’t where in the pits of hell did she steal that high horse of hers.

    • Curtis the Media Man

      I fully understood the profanity with those three words. Sometimes its the most appropriate way to say things.

  • Tony

    Terry can pick a good film out just as good as she can pick a straight guy (dude was the most flaming.)

  • “Who is that tap tap tapping on my bridge”

    “It’s me, Tambay, Mr Billy Goat Gruff. But you don’t want me, I have a bigger brother. Let me go, and he will soon be on his way”

    Excuse me yawl, but if I am not mistaken, didn’t I just read Tambay’s soft tap tap tap upside the head of this movie? I mean, hold the sauce. Didn’t I hear him say…

    “So… overall, definitely Tyler Perry’s best work thus far; but ultimately just an OK film with a few standout performances”

    Just ok!

    and: “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”

    It needed a more mature and seasoned director… uuummmm.

    AND: “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 mean “unnecessarily harsh” and “AS TERRIBLE”??? AS!?

    AND! “So, you’ve seen this before; 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”

    It doesn’t escape soap opera!

    AND! “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 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!!!… “The supporting male cast felt like an afterthought 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. And Hill Harper as our resident good black man is a bore. As is, most of them are essentially uninteresting”

    He continues… “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”

    Janet was terrible, and many were a step above her!

    More good news???… “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”

    What?!! Whoopie was trying too hard. Kerry Washington was same ol’ Kerry Washington and Thandie… well, we (or she) don’t know which way to go.

    Oh, and this is a must see.. “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”

    Mostly fails and was jarring!

    I mean, folks, did you read what I did, or are we all living in a dream? Excuse my language, but to me, that review had all the markings of a complimentary fu*k. You know, one person didn’t really want to have sex, but they did so to appease the other person.

    After reading that review, and really “listening” to what Tambay was saying, if I even thought about seeing the movie (and I had) that’s now a distant memory. The thrill is gone.

    I felt like I just watched a woman try to tell another woman that her husband was having sex with a man, but see just couldn’t spit it out.

  • Curtis

    Wow. Boxoffice tracking numbers just came out and For Colored girls is tracking to be Another huge Tyler Perry boxoffice hit. The film is already out tracking Perrys last film that made 30 million opening weekend back in april.Tyler Perry’s fans will make this movie huge hit at the Boxoffice and they will love the film. The only person that unwanted to like was the great lady who wrote the book. And she did love it. Tyler my $10 will be added to the million you about to make next weekend.

    • I’m curious as to how HUGE, in terms of numbers, does it have to be in order to be considered a financial success? Now if this was budgeted the way his other films have been, roughly 10-15 million, I imagine it definitely will be considered financially successful. But if his budget for this movie is approximately 30 million, as it’s been suggested, wouldn’t that mean he has to bring in about three times that or 90 million? Somebody school me.

      • Hard to say until we know for sure what the budget is, and how much as been spent on marketing. And I’m not sure if Lionsgate is looking at this like your typical Tyler Perry flick, and might even be expecting lesser box office, in exchange for prestige nods.

        I really don’t think they’re expecting a huge payday with this, given the subject matter, and Tyler’s track record (his films, on average, top out around the $53 mill mark). So, even if it’s budget is indeed in the $30 mill range, I’d assume anything over $50 mill will be considered a success. There’s also ancillary markets coin to consider.

  • Miles Ellison

    If Terry McMillan liked it, then it’s definitely not worth watching.

  • I agree with you on the point that if someone has it in their mind to hate the movie, they will and vice verse. This review was one of the best I’ve read so far. I think at the end of the day, those intending to go see it, should go without expectations good or bad. Take it for what it is.

    • careycarey

      Noelani, you’ve forced me to modify my comment. You said this was the best review… I’ll say it was the most honest review that I’ve read so far. Tambay did not leave any stones unturned.

      There’s an old song by Mary Wells that speaks to what I’ve been hearing. One of the lines: “What’s this whole world coming to, things just ain’t the same, any time the hunter gets captured by the game”

      The game, as it applies to Tyler Perry and his films, is of course, filled with criticism. To that point, I viewed Tambay’s and Sergio’s reviews as charity FK’s. I believe they want to be true to their craft/art, yet, not been seen as dogs (haters) that piled on the rabbit.

      The message I’m hearing from them and you, has a common theme… Go see the movie if you want to, but keep your expectation close to your heart. Meaning, you’ll only find what you’re looking for. I’m left to wonder what most people ARE looking for?

      Given that the context of this movie revolves around poetry, that takes many right off the table. I think I can safely assume that most of Tyler Perry’s fans are not die hard poetry lovers. The names Maya Angelou and Tyler Perry will seldom be heard in the same sentence, unless, of course, Perry renders another movie similar to this one. Which takes me to my last point.

      When I read a movie review that speaks to a subject and/or genre that I love, be it action, suspense, mystery, a love story, drama, comedy, etc, I am looking to see if the director/movie hit my groove zone. In the reviews that I’ve read (of this movie) they were devoid of any specific selling points (What’s the movie about, and why should I spend my money?). In fact, other than a few shout-outs to a couple of actors, they were basically saying the movie was just alright/ok/nothing to shout about. Well, that’s exactly what Tambay said, hence, my “charity screw”.

      In short, after reading the reviews, I heard a common theme. I am reminded of a passage from a popular book…. “call those things that are not, as if they already are”

  • Kerry Washington was dope in “Last King of Scotland”

  • grace

    Overall this film has not been well reviewed; with good reviews being more of the mind of “…I didn’t hate it!” I don’t see Oscar nods at all.

  • Jennifer

    Re: Janet

    You don’t make a drop of sense. The role of Patricia in the first film was nothing like the Patricia from the second film. And even if that was the case…hello? We’re talking about a film and a sequel – basically the same story, only an addition to it. So you’re basically criticizing Janet for acting in a role similar to ONE other role written and directed by the same person. In other news…water. Still wet?

  • T. Whiner

    Where would TP be without a resident light skin-ded good guy stereotype/caricature? Hill Harper to the rescue. ALL in all, based on TP’s work, I expect NADA, absolutely NADA, so I can only be surprise. I’ll wait til it hits TV then I’ll hold my nose and watch.

  • T. Whiner

    Oooh and for the record, Ms. Jackson CAN’T ACT! She can only play the same role, because Jennifer, sweetie, that’s all she’s got. Get thee to training! Even a dim wit no talent, like Halle Berry got her behind in somebody’s training…not saying it helped any. But, at least she tried. I’m just sayin’…

  • Rose

    I have never been a Tyler Perry fan, but having just seen For Colored Girls, I feel he did a great job, much better than I expected, of creating a film which is true to the spirit of the original stage play. I’ve seen the play in various incarnations since its debut, and I remember being blown away the first time I saw it. I had that same blown-away response to the film. Ntozake Shange’s original choreo-poem was groundbreaking, a black woman poetry slam long before there were poetry slams. Her words gave powerful voice to the often heartbreaking circumstances of black women’s lives. I appreciate that Perry created a screenplay wherein some of the most powerful monologues of Shange’s play are included and they work in the film in a way which is creative and powerful. Kudos to Perry for figuring out a way to make a narrative film yet keep the poetry and power of Shange’s words intact. I’m reminded of the way the film Shakespeare in Love did the same thing by weaving together story and Shakespeare’s dialogue from Romeo and Juliet. I also think one of the reasons the film version of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was disappointing was because the filmmakers couldn’t figure out how to incorporate Hurston’s beautiful prose into the film. The actresses in For Colored Girls give outstanding performances and I appreciate the way each projected the voices and lives of Shange’s characters. I’ve seen a lot of literature to film attempts, and overall, I’d say that Tyler Perry has done a great job of creatively tackling the kind of source material For Colored Girls is and bringing it to film.

  • Miz. Tired

    It is so amazing how the truth brings so much negitivity to the mouths of others. I was always told that the truth hurts. And light as we take it the issues brought to the screen this weekend by the help of Mr.Perry was the truth. Today so many women are still exposed to the abuse, cheating, rape and last but not least the lack of self-esteem. All women who has suffered these issues need to look at this movie and reclaim their lives through excepting the truth. Thank God for small miracles. Thanks Mr.Perry for opening the eyes of so many lost women. And to the men that feel they were dogged. Get over it because light as you take it so many men are not cherrishing the women that they have. If you are GREAT, if not WAKE UP and start.

  • Jason

    One could write a movie where every Black woman was a crack-addicted prostitute, that would be “truth” too. I weary of our passive acceptance of our racial denigration as ‘art’.

    • Excellent point Jason. I read all the comments and I didn’t see anyone bemoaning Tyler’s ability to tell the truth. It was more about his directing abilities.

      Besides, who has been denying the truth? I felt your words… why is this form of “art” accepted as art, and why does it seem to be the accepted/prevailing,only way a POC can get their sceenplays on film? Racial denigration seems to be the power-play of the day.

  • “For Colored Girls” is: “Crash” reincarnated, poetry in motion, a mirror reflecting–me. Well done T. Perry!