Phil on Film Index

Monday, December 06, 2010

Review - For Colored Girls

Who is Tyler Perry? On this side of the Atlantic, the auteur is an unfamiliar name, but in the United States, he has quickly become one of the most consistently successful filmmakers around. His rapid rise to the top has been marked by critical derision, but the black audiences his films are made for continue to turn out in force every time he releases a new picture, which is often more than once a year. Clearly, a specific section of the moviegoing public has a taste for whatever it is that Perry has, but that attraction has remained a mystery to UK viewers, as despite the diverse population in this country, Perry's films have consistently failed to find distribution. That changed earlier this year when Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too? became the first of his films to hit British cinemas, although it barely made a dent at the box office and its arrival certainly went unnoticed by me.

All of which means For Colored Girls is my first taste of the Tyler Perry experience, and what a taste it is. Intense, melodramatic, shocking and powerfully acted the film may be, but it's also laughably unsubtle, clumsily directed and horribly written. Perry has assembled a formidable team of actresses to portray the women suffering at the hands of various men, but even these fine performers can't do much to elevate the stodgy material they have been asked to digest. The film is an adaptation of Ntozake Shange's 1975 stage play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (yes, Enuf), and while Perry has thankfully cut that unwieldy title, his inability to edit judiciously severely hampers his misguided film.

Shange's play consisted of actresses delivering 20 poems that reflected the ongoing struggle of black women, and while it's easy to imagine such an approach being powerful in the theatre, monologues are a serious obstacle in cinema. During For Colored Girls, whenever a character reaches her lowest ebb, she begins reciting one of Shange's poems, which necessitates a drastic shift from the straightforward approach and banal dialogue Perry utilises elsewhere in the picture. When we see a soliloquy unfold on stage, we can appreciate it in its theatrical context, but here, in a more realistic setting, it feels hopelessly artificial. As we watch a 16 year-old recovering from a backstreet abortion (Tessa Thompson) or a battered rape victim (Anika Noni Rose) suddenly resort to unedited lumps of Shange's poetic text in a hospital or police station, all I could think was, nobody talks like that.

So the scenes that should be the most powerful in the film end up feeling false and overly stylised, which is a shame, because if Perry has one gift as a director, it lies in his ability to get everything his female cast has got to give. For Colored Girls takes place in New York, with most of the characters either living in the same walk-up or crossing the paths of those who do. There's battered wife Crystal (Kimberley Elise), promiscuous Tangie (Thandie Newton), barren social worker Kelly (Kerry Washington) and religious zealot Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) among others. These parts offer plenty of tragedy for such strong actresses to get their teeth into, and they all respond with passion and emotion, fleshing out roles that, as written, occasionally seem little more than stoically suffering martyrs. Perry clearly loves these women, and he shoots them in long takes and tight close-ups, all the better to see the bruises and the tears streaming down their cheeks, but his constant chasing of big moments eventually takes its toll.

Tyler Perry is not a subtle director, and throughout For Colored Girls he is always striving for impact. He is willing to play any card in the hope of jerking some tears, with his film covering domestic abuse, alcoholism, rape, HIV (apparently indicated by a tickly cough), secret homosexuality and – in a jaw-dropping scene that the film never recovers from – even a spectacular death for two young children. I'm struggling to think of a director who could frame that particular scene in a way that doesn't feel like a cheap and nasty stunt, but Perry, with his blunt and artless style, is certainly not the man for the job.

In the end, Perry's manipulative efforts are counterproductive. The film's desperate desire to move us feels just that – desperate – and with the repetitive poetic monologues constantly pulling us out of the drama, we never feel settled enough to involve ourselves in these women's stories. It's a disappointment, because some of the actresses among this ensemble are great talents who are too often saddled with token parts that fail to display their gifts, and while For Colored Girls is massively flawed, I guess I can understand why black women, starved of representation onscreen, take Perry's films to their hearts. However, I'm not sure what this picture has to offer for the rest of us. It's a lumpy, histrionic and overextended affair, and one that misses so many of the targets it aims for. I haven't seen the rest of Perry's oeuvre, but it feels like For Colored Girls is a self-conscious stab at a great work, a film that attempts to encapsulate everything about the black female experience in America. Sadly, long before the schmaltzy, tacky final sequence, the truth is exposed – for all of his lofty ambitions, Tyler Perry simply isn't good enuf.