Judge Brett Cullum thought the rainbow was always enuf.
Many voices. One poem.
For Colored Girls is the overdue cinematic adaptation of Ntozake Shange's 1975 stage play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. It was never going to be easy to take twenty poems that were accompanied by dance and put them on film, and it was always a mystery as to who would try it. Ironically, it took Tyler Perry (Diary of a Mad Black Woman) to get the film made, and he signed on a host of luminous African American actresses to breathe life into the poetic passages of the play, which is almost four decades old. He's a guy who is known for dressing up as an elderly sassy black woman, and now he's the guy who is going to try to make sense of a play that called itself a "choreopoem."
Facts of the Case
The movie divides each girl (in the play assigned to a representative color) in to her own dramatic segment although they all intersect some way with each other. Janet Jackson (Poetic Justice), Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple), Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show), Thandie Newton (The Pursuit of Happyness), Loretta Devine (What Women Want), Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls), Kimberly Elise (Set It Off), Tessa Thompson (Veronica Mars) and Kerry Washington (Ray) all appear as the women central to the film's message. They deal with hard hitting issues such as love, abandonment, rape, infidelity, and abortion.
The play was extremely popular when it debuted in 1974 as a collection of dance poetry, and it seems like strange territory for Tyler Perry to kick off his production company with an adaptation of it. Playwright Ntozake Shange voiced her own apprehensions because she said Perry had not demonstrated a sensitivity to women in his films and they always came off as "plastic." She seemed to support the project once it was released, but couldn't help but give Perry a backhanded compliment by claiming to a Seattle newspaper "I think he did a very fine job, although I'm not sure I would call it a finished film." She probably wasn't happy with the way Tyler Perry modernized the piece and put in a loose narrative to connect her poetic monologues which worked so well during the stage run and an early '80s TV treatment.
You can't deny that the acting is topnotch. Each of the women turn in credible and moving performances, and you can tell they are passionately behind the project. They are all beautiful, charismatic, and they commit to the script. It's a pity the overall production doesn't rise to their level of fierce talent on display. You almost wish Perry had simply had them tour the country performing the original script so we could see how effective the original production could be with these women on top of their game.
By taking the poems and inserting them in melodrama, nothing feels quite right. There's a point where you know that the original script is poking through because suddenly the dialogue is brilliant, but then they drift to another soap opera story line and it wrecks the charm of what was there on the stage. Another problem is trying to update the proceedings, and that feels like a strange fight between our modern world and the 1975 era when "colored girls" made more sense as a collective term. The issues and some of the terminology are a little dated, but are shoehorned into the present day. But the real misstep is how far things go. Perry takes many of the situations and dramatizes them in a way that makes them extremely over the top. It's too much, and at times his heavy hand knocks down the power of the elegant words.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I probably would have told you to stay far away from the film in the mall multiplex, but Blu-ray does a nice job of putting this all in context. The extras make this project seem more worthy on home video. There is a feature length documentary about the original production which features the cast and author talking about what they did back in the day. We also get a feature that shows us all the poems either performed or in text form. Then we have Tyler Perry explaining how he adapted fourteen of the twenty poems to make his film. It gives everything meaning, and helps soften the blow of all the melodrama. It shows us why the poems have such a power. There are musical montages as well which are nice. Also included are all the marketing materials such as trailers and tv spots.
The Blu-ray looks stunning in all its high definition glory. The transfer is nicely saturated with great depth of color. That is important since the colors play into the source material so strongly. The sound option is only one surround track, but it is a nicely done master track. This pack comes with a DVD copy as well as a code to download a digital version. Nice to have the options, but you will find the Blu-ray version preferable as it is the only one with the extras.
If you like the actresses and you have a sense of the importance of the play, then For Colored Girls is worth a look. It is an interesting study in taking classic literary material and trying to make it modern and more like a movie. It doesn't always work, but it's always interesting. We hardly ever get to see this many talented women get a shot to show us their acting skills, and that's not something to be taken lightly. The sad part is that this rainbow isn't quite enuf, and you wish for a more satisfying adaptation than what Tyler Perry is doing here. He's injected a sense of slick melodrama that doesn't serve the material well. The speeches work, but the silly soap elements downplay what is really going on. It seems he has taken the complicated dance poems of the seventies and tried to simplify them too much for a modern audience who he thinks will only respond to a high sense of drama. The best way to watch the film is to listen for the higher messages of the original passages, and to ignore the shortcomings of the Tyler Perry plot.
Guilty of thinking the rainbow was not enuf.
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