For Colored Girls is a fireball of raw, organic rage bundled into 120 minutes worth of film. All at once it’s ugly, beautiful and profoundly abstract, a dizzying triad of perceptions that will either stamp For Colored Girls a box office triumph or a commercial bomb.
Critics may question whether mass audiences are ready (or willing) to ingest the onslaught of unnerving topics For Colored Girls engages. Rape, murder, abortion, mental illness, promiscuity, homosexuality, Black female identity and poverty are only a fraction of the macro social issues tackled, and comic relief comes fleetingly.
But understanding Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf requires recognition of the book hailed as a revolution in Black women’s literature.
In its purest form, the original stage production is a series of 20 poems performed by seven principal characters known only by color, such as the Lady in Yellow and the Lady in Red. Here, Shange’s words are a jungle of metaphor and feminist affirmations; puns and simile; Ebonics and colorful imagery (“hips painted with orange blossoms & magnolia scented wrists.”) On page and in theatre productions, For Colored Girls has been critically acclaimed and even garnered a Tony Award.
But where the author’s vision takes place in a racially charged 1970s setting, Perry’s production is modernized with more recent phenomena such as HIV making an appearance. The lead actresses – Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Loretta Devine, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Whoopi Goldberg, Kimberly Elise and Janet Jackson – are given real names, with subtle hints of their color-identified forebears. Shange’s poetry, however, remains largely uninterrupted and the cast of powerful performers often deviate into minutes-long diatribes and monologues brimming with Shange’s characteristically flowery prose. Perhaps most jarring is the obvious schism that exists between Shange’s poetic phrases and Perry’s more straightforward words.
This may prove problematic for today’s moviegoers, particularly diehard Perry fans accustomed to his lighthearted releases like Why Did I Get Married? and Madea’s Family Reunion. But whether audiences truly grasp the writer’s complex analogies is almost irrelevant. The cast of celebrated actors bring a human, visceral element to the production that transcends language.
English film star Thandie Newton shines as the overtly sexual, foul-mouthed firecracker Tangie, while big screen newcomer Tessa Thompson delivers a stirring performance as her younger, troubled sister Nyla. These two characters alone face a sundry of misfortunes – Tangie’s irreverent promiscuity and emotional numbness; Nyla’s teenage pregnancy and what appears to be a thwarted college career. Legendary comedienne Whoopi Goldberg is Alice, Tangie and Nyla’s hysterically religious mother, and a hoarder. The on-screen dynamic between the three actresses is intense as they move from unadulterated rage, self-pity and ultimately, acceptance of their identity.
Equally powerful is singing sensation Janet Jackson’s portrayal of Joanna, a successful but coldhearted magazine editor, whose distant relationship with her husband proves to be life-changing. With her perfectly coiffed crop, designer pumps and patrician nose, Jackson makes the perfect snob.
However, it’s Beloved actress Kimberly Elise’s multifaceted role as Crystal, Joanna’s overworked assistant, that brings For Colored Girls to a tear-jerking pinnacle. She is the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of boyfriend Kwame (Michael Ealy), who bears a lifetime’s worth of mental and emotional scars presumably gained during the war in Iraq. Kwame also fathers the young mother’s two children and is an out-of-work alcoholic. When his rage against Crystal spills over into an unthinkable act of violence, filmgoers will be driven to tears, averted eyes and dropped jaws.
As the nine women’s lives become entwined, Anika Noni Rose (Yasmine) and Loretta Devine (Juanita) struggle to find common ground with their significant others. Kerry Washington’s character, a social worker named Kelly, is the only cast member who maintains a consistently healthy relationship with her husband, played by actor/writer Hill Harper. Juanita brings the film its rare moments of tense humor as she fights for the affection of a man who loves another woman, while Phylicia Rashad is the building manager at a decrepit Harlem tenement where most of the protagonists live. Similar to her public persona crafted during an eight-year run as Clair on “The Cosby Show,” she portrays a stoic matriarch with a quick wit and generous heart.
Whether Perry’s infamously unflappable fan base will be as generous with their praise and patronage, only time will tell.
“For Colored Girls” opens nationwide Nov. 5. For more information visit forcoloredgirlsmovie.com.