Movie Review: For Colored Girls
The Charlotte Observer
“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” hit Broadway audiences like a hammer blow 34 years ago.
Playgoers were on their feet physically at the end but on their knees emotionally. Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem,” a series of monologues that put us inside the minds of black women, left many people (including this 22-year-old white man) feeling we’d had our first full look at characters who were not only disenfranchised but nearly invisible – a poignant thought in the year of America’s bicentennial celebration.
Tyler Perry was 7 at the time, but the play must have made a powerful impression later. The writer-director waited until he had the clout, budget and prestige to attract a top-flight cast, then turned “Colored Girls” into a movie with a little less darkness but plenty of heart and guts.
The film is an odd hybrid structurally: Perry pays tribute to the original poetry by inserting it into otherwise realistic dialogue. So Phylicia Rashad is counseling a loose woman in conventional fashion when she breaks into a long, flowery speech about lilies and African queens.
That suited me, as I could listen to Phylicia Rashad read the list of possible side effects of an antidepressant capsule. But if you can’t get comfortably inside this structure, which has an exotic and melodramatic quality, the movie will make you fidget.
It has two undeniable virtues, however: Perry’s bolder attitude as a writer and uniformly good work by his cast.
Perry deals for the first time with many problems that go unsolved by man or God. (Except for a religious fanatic who doesn’t seem to get much joy from her faith, played by Whoopi Goldberg, God is never mentioned.)
A sympathetic character becomes HIV-positive. Little children suffer without reprieve. A back-alley abortionist, cheerful and casual, sticks her tools into a scared high school graduate. The main hope offered is that broken people can hold each other up and find strength together.
Except for an apartment manager with loads of common sense (Rashad) and a social worker with more conscience than she needs (Kerry Washington), all the characters surf on waves of pain.
A dance teacher (Anika Noni Rose), an office worker (Kimberly Elise) and the editor of a fashion magazine (Janet Jackson) all suffer at the hands of callous or brutal men. A sluttish bartender (Thandie Newton), crippled by a sexually abusive grandfather and an unhelpful mom, treats men cruelly before they can do the same to her. Even the cheerful manager of a free health clinic lets the same philanderer into her bed and heart over and over. (She’s played by Loretta Devine, who steals the show with the poem “Somebody Almost Ran Off With My Stuff.”)
We have made progress since 1976, and Perry knows that. (For one thing, he would never have directed an expensive studio picture back then.)
The fact that he can show black women running mass-market magazines and health clinics reminds us how far we’ve come. But there are still plenty of women of all colors suffering from abuse of all kinds, some shouting to make themselves heard and some whispering in fear. We still need to listen.