Friday, March 18, 2011

For Colored Girls

Directed by Tyler Perry.
2010. Rated R, 133 minutes.
Kimberly Elise
Loretta Devine
Thandie Newton
Janet Jackson
Anika Noni Rose
Kerry Washington
Phylicia Rashad
Whoopi Goldberg
Michael Ealy
Omari Hardwick
Hill Harper

Macy Gray

Three troubled women live next to one another in a walk-up apartment building. Crystal (Elise) has a live-in baby daddy who is just home from “the war." Apparently suffering from severe PTSD, he drinks all day long and slaps her and the kids around. Tangie (Newton) literally brings a different man home every night from the bar she works in, has a religious fanatic mom (Goldberg) who pops up from time to time demanding money, and a little sister she can’t stand. Gilda (Rashad) is the least troubled, but tries her best to help the younger ladies and doesn’t seem to be having much success.

Very quickly, we meet some more ladies with problems. There’s Jo (Jackson), a magazine tycoon who is suffering through a bad marriage and some sort of health problem. If you’ve paid any attention to Tyler Perry’s previous work, you should figure out what’s wrong with her in about ten minutes. Kelly (Washington) is a social worker married to a cop and has a health issue of her own. Juanita (Devine) has a part-time boyfriend who moves in and out of her apartment at will, or more accurately, at the whim of his other woman. Then there’s Yasmine (Rose), the local dance teacher. She appears to be worry free. How long do you think that will last?

The ladies struggle with their issues and often have heart-wrenching moments. These moments will lead to many to hail it as Perry’s crowning achievement, artistically. That really isn’t saying much, but the point is taken. The director takes a more adult approach to his material and actually goes straight for drama. The bit of humor that is sprinkled in is much more derived from the human condition than his usual over the top slapstick. The overzealous attempts at comedy present in his other films never show up here. There are no buffoons in loud clothing, no old people smoking weed and thankfully no signs of Perry in drag. What we’re left with are these women and their pain.

Their pain drives the movie. It’s the crutch Perry leans on, rather effectively I might add. This part is easy for him because he’s always had two things going for him. First, he knows his target audience. It is no secret that target is African-American females. He has a good feel for what moves them emotionally and how to concoct just the right amount of melodrama to rile enough of them up. Second, he always elicits strong work from his cast. Across the board, the performances are fantastic.

In For Colored Girls, Perry is a skilled illusionist. As one powerfully acted scene after another depicts painful occurrences he knows many in his audience relate to, all too well, the illusion is we’re watching a great movie. The fact is all these wonderful scenes don’t quite gel into a cohesive unit. They’re short snippets of people, mostly women, pouring their hearts out quite literally through their tear ducts. Yes, there is lots of crying. The actors eagerly and earnestly attack their lines, leaving us and them exhausted from the effort. Unfortunately, the story the scenes combine to tell is predictable and uninspired man-bashing. Far in advance, we can see what’s coming. This stems from something the Tyler Perry canon is plagued by. It seems that in his world, Black men who aren’t the embodiment of pure evil are a rare commodity, except for the clowns of his other movies, of course. What happens is the scenes eventually devolve into a string of tragedies with hardly enough triumph to notice. To help us with this as much as possible, Perry eschews his normal all curing trip to church with another chick-flick cliché remedy, the group hug. Seriously.

As much formula is evident, there is some serious ambition with regards to dialogue. The first thing is the free-flowing of four, seven and twelve letter words that earn ‘R’ ratings. For most, this is not a big deal in any way. For Perry, it runs the serious risk of alienating his most ardent fans. Within the rather large and diverse population of Black women, the seemingly unshakeable core of his audience is those who regularly attend church. His work is seen as religious, with a secular slant. This brazenly flips the agenda.

The other risk is with how much he incorporates the source material. For those that don’t know, FCG is based on the play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.” Written by Ntozake Shange, it’s really a collection of poems centered around several characters. It had a pretty decent run onstage in the mid-seventies, even being nominated for the “Best Play” Tony and winning a number of other awards. I was intrigued going in because even though I’ve never seen the play, I have read it. Though that’s been long enough ago to forget most of it, I was curious to see how it could translate to the big screen. It’s a wonderful piece of writing that anyone interested in poetry should give a chance. Indeed, large chunks of Shange’s work are directly inserted into the screenplay. Characters talk normally, then suddenly break out in verse. Occasionally, this works to perfection as in the scene in which we’re treated to a cameo by Macy Gray. Its perfect mix of persona and content provides us with a truly frightening two minutes. Other times, this tactic feels a bit off, or just plain odd. Still, I give him kudos for trying.

FCG is a most difficult movie for me to gauge. So much of it works, I’m tempted to join the ranks of those who swear by it. However, just as much doesn’t work. It reminds me I am a member of the “Tyler Perry Must Be Stopped” club. Approach this with guarded optimism.

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