Last Friday I saw Tyler Perry’s latest film, “For Colored Girls,” on opening night. I had planned to rush home and write a review for you guys and gals, but that didn’t happen. As you can see it has taken me a week gather my thoughts. Here’s why:
1. Because this movie is based on something as powerful as Ntozake Shange’s play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” I expected to have a very strong emotional and intellectual reaction to the film. While there were certainly a few scenes that left my heart racing, as a whole I wasn’t sure how to respond when friends asked me, “So what did you think?” I expected to either absolutely love the movie or absolutely loathe it and I was going to come home grab my laptop and tell you exactly why. But instead when I got home and Edd asked, “How was it?” I simply replied, “Meh.”
2. When I first heard that Perry was writing and directing a film adaptation of Shange’s play I was worried, and not just because the man who created Madea and Mr. Brown would be at the helm of the production. I just wasn’t convinced that the play could translate well on the big screen and I’m still not. For those of you unfamiliar with the work, Shange’s play is written as a series of poems. Trying to seamlessly mix these works with everyday dialogue and a film-friendly narrative would be a huge challenge for even the best screenwriter, which, unfortunately, we know Perry is not.
As Cynthia Fuchs, director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Film & Video Studies, at George Mason University, says in her review of the film, the movie “never finds an effective combination of image and poetry,” which is perhaps why I didn’t get the goosebumps I went in expecting. Fuchs goes on to say:
Even one of the play’s climactic moments—a simultaneous overlay of life stories told by … Tangie (Thandie Newton) and (her) mother Alice (Whoopi Goldberg)—is all but lost amid the distracting repeated rack focusing and awkward staging. You lose the sense of what the women are saying, how their tragedies are the same and different, how they’ve damaged one another in their efforts to claim themselves, how their bad choices have always, always been shaped by their lack of options. Instead, you’re wondering how such powerful language has been turned inside out and made so stunningly ineffective.
Furthermore, the male characters of the film completely lack depth, a common Perry misstep. I understand that a film adaption of this play would obviously require intense focus on the development of the female characters, but the men of the movie are so one-dimensional they’re essentially monstrous, with the exception Hill Harper’s character, who is, sadly, incredibly ineffectual.
3. I must admit, however, that my opinion of the film may have been somewhat colored by my experience at the movie theater. Several of my fellow moviegoers were gabbing over important scenes and even laughing during monologues about date rape and botched abortions! Many audience members seem to have no awareness of Shange’s work, so when the characters would begin to recite poetic pieces they wanted to know, “Why she talkin’ like dat?” I swear half the audience was probably sat there waiting for Madea to pop out with her pistol.
4. When I left the theater, what I wanted to know most was what Shange thought of Perry’s adaptation of her work. In a recent interview, she was quoted saying, “I think he did as well as to be expected.” She went on to say, “I think all the actresses performed remarkably well… I think Tyler directed them well, because there were very few flaws I could find in the acting, so that’s his work and their work.” To the claim by reviewers that Perry has somehow cheapened her work, Shange had this to say:
“Darling my work used to be for free. I used to do these poems by myself with a drummer or a tamboura player, or with a piano player, any kind of music player I could get. We would do it outside on a corner, and we would make art in the street, and people would throw things at us like coins. One time I had a group I was with called The Mushara Brothers and they gave me a tambourine, and I used to hop around with a tambourine to get our change for the night. One night we made $2.57 that’s all we made, and we had to divide it between the three of us.”
5. Despite criticisms I may have outlined here, I do believe that “For Colored Girls” is worth a film worth seeing. I didn’t leave the theater awestruck but I also didn’t leave feeling that the movie was a waste of 2 hours and 10 dollars. The film boasts a phenomenal cast and it is truly a treat to see them in action together. Because of amazing performances by Thandie Newton as Tangie, the hardened bartender who uses sex as an escape from her pain; Kimberly Elise, whose war veteran boyfriend is abusing her and their children; and the incomparable Phylicia Rashad, the wise building manager who holds the tale together, the film does pack some power.
All in all, the film did serve as a necessary reminder that my feminism must be more action-oriented and take me from behind my computer and to the sides of my sisters. The painful stories, be they melodramatic or not, reminded me that I must love the women and girls of this world as if my life and their lives depend on it, because in the end they do.