Bigger Than Madea

If we could forget for a moment that Tyler Perry’s latest film is a less-than-stellar re-envisioning of Ntozake Shange’s highly lauded, Obie-award winning 1970s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, we might catch a glimpse of the brilliance that initially made Perry so successful. Though he’s made over 20 films, a filmmaker he is not — but oh, I bet the man could pen an engaging play.

Back in his element with Shange’s material meant for consumption by a live theater audience, his For Colored Girls has the makings of a potentially fantastic modernized tale of the quiet, simmering desperation of black women everywhere. After all, this is his sweet spot. Perry’s made his bread and butter telling the stories of broken, abandoned, and often invisible black women who suffer silently until someone like him screams on their behalf before an audience.

The only problem is, Perry made For Colored Girls into a film. And unlike the original off-Broadway show that captured audiences by, as Shange described in her book, “enveloping almost 6,000 people a week in the words of a young black girl’s growing up, her triumphs & errors, our struggle to become all that is forbidden by our environment, all that is forfeited by our gender, all that we have forgotten,” this film is neither rapturous nor nostalgic. And that’s not all Perry’s fault.

By nature, most of the tropes that functioned well onstage — the anonymity of the girls identified only by color, the rhythmic recitation of poems, and the fluid movement of interwoven stories and dance — are lost when caged inside the restrictive confines of a motion picture screenplay. By removing identity from each woman’s narrative and extending the stories from Houston to Chicago, Shange universalized the experiences of black women, creating an effect of unity and strength that sent shockwaves through a post-civil rights and women’s lib America where black women were just tearing back their personhood. Though Perry tried to remain ambiguous, titling his version For Colored Girls, he ultimately squeezes his characters into a few blocks in Harlem, losing the crux of the impact of Shange’s work.

Perry also forfeits some of what’s garnered him tremendous success by operating from the base of Shange’s pre-existing text. While fans of his work won’t be surprised that his popular character Madea doesn’t make an appearance in this drama, they may be uncomfortable with some of the “spirit within” theology espoused by the characters. The rally cry at the close of the film shows the women finding consolation by drawing power from the feminine spirit within. As Shange wrote, “I found God in myself/and I loved her/I loved her fiercely.”

For Colored Girls does offer impressive performances by its cast, even with it’s tricky and often-awkward dialogue that constantly slips into poetic monologues where Shange’s words are woven into Perry’s script. Loretta Devine (Juanita/Green) glitters with her energetic performance and on point delivery of the monologue “somebody almost walked off wid alla mah stuff.” Kimberly Elise (Crystal/Brown) masters her role as the downbeat of the film depicting the extremes of domestic violence opposite Michael Ealy (Beau Willie). Other notable mentions are Anika Noni Rose, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, and a spotlight performance from Macy Gray as a back alley abortionist.

This hybrid, For Colored Girls mixing spoken-word poetry and traditional filmmaking, is unsuccessful critically and likely won’t warrant the Oscar-buzz Oprah claims is encircling the film. As we noted with Why Did I Get Married Too?, Perry should deal in comedy, where his disjointed narratives and poor visual artistry will be less noticeable. However, For Colored Girls is still an enjoyable, though heavy, exploration of the struggle of black women. It’s worth seeing as an alternative choice at the box office.

About the author, Chanel Graham

Chanel Graham is a New York-based freelance writer and a pop culture editor for UrbanFaith. She is also the co-founder of I Kissed Dating Hello, an online community-driven site exploring the challenges and triumphs of Christian dating.

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