For Colored Girls is the clear outlier among all of Tyler Perry's films: most prominently because it is the only one of his features not ultimately based on his own idea, adapted instead from a 1975 theater piece by Ntozake Shange, for colored girl who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. It is, a bit more subtly, his only film to take place entirely in New York, and not the beloved Georgia of Perry's own history. And, though this is a subject measure entirely, it is far and away the most motherfucking insane thing he has ever done or will ever do, and it is for this reason that I am absolutely obsessed with it: it comes not even close to earning the title of his best film - "best" and "worst", "good" and "bad" are judgment calls that seem unusually difficult to apply here, anyway - but is almost certainly his strangest and most endlessly fascinating, and that's in a career decidedly not wanting for weird fascinations. I will make a confession: one of the chief reasons I wanted to do this Tyler Perry retrospective in the first place was because I proved unable to find a spot in the reviewing schedule for this one when I first saw it in theaters in November, 2010, and I've been hunting for a good excuse to return to it ever since.
I have not read, much less seen Shange's non-narrative play made up of 20 "choreopoems", though I know it to be an exegesis of the experience of the African-American woman as of the three-quarter mark of the 20th Century, with seven unnamed characters, each identified only by the color she wears, performing poetic narratives about love, rape, personal strength, and such. Perry' screenplay expands this rather considerably: not only does he give the women names, there are nine of them now. And in lieu of a non-narrative consideration of being a black woman, it is an expansive ensemble film on the Robert Altman model, in which the inhabitants of a single run-down New York apartment building, and some of the individuals in their sphere of influence, walk through individual narrative arcs that each explore some of Shange's topics.
In brief, we have Tangie/Orange (Thandie Newton), a habitual drug user and sex fancier - the English language lacks a better word than "slut", though the movie tries (and often fails) to be less judgmental than that - Crystal/Brown (Kimberly Elise), who lives with an abusive boyfriend (Michael Ealy) and is in perpetual fear for the safety of their children; Gilda/Gray (Phylicia Rashad), the apartment's designated busybody, who spends most of her time nagging Tangie for her filthy slut ways; and Yasmine/Yellow (Anika Noni Rose), a dance teacher looking for love. They are the inhabitants of the building; we also meet activitist Juanita/Green (Loretta Devine), whose erstwhile lover Frank (Richard Lawson) lives just down the hall from Tangie, and whose constant emotional absence has forced Juanita into a reconsideration of her dependence on men as a class; Jo/Red (Janet Jackson), a magazine editor and Crystal's boss, a stressed and snappish Type A with a notable lack of mercy; Nyla/Purple (Tessa Thompson), a ballet dancer and Tangie's sister, just on the cusp of womanhood and unready to deal with the crises it brings; Alice/White (Whoopi Goldberg), Nyla and Tangie's mother, who subscribes to a peculiar, cultish fringe religion that dominates her every waking moment; and Kelly/Blue (Kerry Washington), a social worker who introduces us into the film when she comes to Crystal's home, looking to figure out what's going on with this apparent abuse case.
We'll get to the rest of it, but I first want to call your attention to that list of names: that is a stunning cast of top-notch black actresses, nearly all of whom are perpetually locked out of good, meaty roles in the traditionally white hierarchy of English-language filmmaking. If that was the only thing For Colored Girls got absolutely right - as it is, in fact,the only thing For Colored Girls gets absolutely right - giving these nine women some robust characters and thick lines to read would be sufficient all by itself to make the film essential viewing. There is, for starters, a rare chance to see the comedy-pigeonholed Goldberg play an intensely serious role; far and away the most dignified role the great and criminally underexposed Devine has ever been given; frustratingly small but piquant roles for the vibrant Washington and imposingly regal Rashad; and Newton, probably the actress best-served by the film industry out of this cast, gets a hugely melodramatic part to devour raw. That said, singling out a single performer for the quality of her work is almost impossible here: Perry structures the script to make sure that every one of them gets at least one showcase moment, and all of them make the most of it, even in performances (Jackson's and Thompson's, mainly) where that showcase scene is the only truly excellent thing they contribute (Jackson is especially impressive in this regard, given that her intense, one-shot monologue has to come right after the absolute worst writing in the entire picture, and save the movie from itself).
That much, then, is unequivocally and exquisitely good; but oh, my Lord, is For Colored Girls not a good movie. It is tacky and misjudged to the extreme in almost every respect that is not the acting; and not just tacky in the sense that Tyler Perry's melodramas are all a bit overwrought and gaudy, but tacky in the special way of a singularly untalented filmmaker trying to do something really serious and noble.
Not to mince words: this film should never, ever have been made by a man, whatever his race. But Perry, lover of women and matriarchs, dove right in anyway, and his attempts to pay tribute to one of the cornerstone texts of African-American feminism border on the surreal. Right from the first moment, he foregrounds Shange's heightened language in a montage that shows each of the women reciting a few lines before dissolving into the next, and then culminating in a cacophonous soundscape as the words the women are saying pop up in multiple colors: it is the most primitive way imaginable to visualise the flow of language, and especially given the "pre-installed font" quality of the text, it feels terrifyingly like a neophyte animation student realising the night before that his project to make a movie out of a poem is due at 10:00 AM.
And this is but the first gesture in a long film - at 134 minutes, Perry's only movie to cross the two-hour mark - in which hardly a single directorial choice goes right. The most notorious mistake is almost certainly the director's amazingly tasteless but epically serious decision to intercut Yasmine being raped with Jo's realisation while attending the opera that her husband is gay, but even that doesn't give the full picture: the worst part of it is not his thoughtless mash-up between these two wildly incompatible moments, but the little things, like how he cuts away to Yasmine's dinner burning during the rape itself, or the popsicle-blue hue he in which he coats the opera and Jo's face. And while that is probably the low point of the whole movie, it is not wanting for little brothers and sisters; the act of violence that divides the film right down the middle is too horrifying for the soap-operatic staging Perry gives it, replete with overly-embellished reaction shots and a disastrous fade to white. And there is the matter of how urgently he color codes each woman's appearance to fit in with Shange's multi-colored conceit, despite how little point it has in the context of this film (nine women after all, cannot map to the rainbow), and how ineffectively he does it - it is a noble attempt that comes off feeling like Krzysztof Kieślowski making Three Colors after a massive stroke; and I have to imagine that even 14 years in the grave, Kieślowski would have done a better job of making this movie than Tyler Perry.
But even the directing isn't as feverishly off as the script, which takes uniformly hackneyed melodramatic threads and wedges them into Shange's poetry with a great deal of care and almost no success. And then there is the crowning misstep of the project, which is the incorporation of the playwright's verse into the screenwriter's dialogue: and without having read the play, there is more than enough of Shange's original work in here to see it as being really tremendous, and the best moments of acting almost invariably map onto the most roiling passages - Devine's life-affirming rant about someone trying to steal all her stuff, Elise's film ending explosion of rage and self-power, Rose's shocked hospital monologue about the rape. And boy oh boy, is it ever obvious when Perry stops and Shange picks up: it's as massive a tonal change as when in old movie musicals, the songs announce themselves through an orchestral flourish that almost demands the characters stop what they're doing and look for the conductor.
Best of all? Perry tries his damnedest to write his new dialogue in a heightened register to match the poetry, and it still feels like the kind of abrupt gear-shift that send your engine block flying out through the hood, and this on top of being the most unnatural, arrhythmic, nearly undeliverable kind of speechifying imaginable. It is terrible, just absolutely terrible; and it reduces a sincere consideration of the way it feels to be a woman in some uncertain mixture of 1975 and 2010 into a flailing dumb show, which only the master class acting can keep nailed to the ground at all.
Terrible; but completely addictive. You'd have to look a long time to find something as unnaturally compelling as For Colored Girls, which is the apotheosis of Tyler Perry's quintessential ability to do everything wrong in the most unique and amazing way possible. Nearly everything is done wrong here, but it is done wrong in ways you have never seen, ways you can barely imagine, and it reaches a point where it's difficult to say with certainty that it's still "wrong"; at its most hypnotically inept it turns into some kind of perversely arresting outsider art - the rape scene leaps to mind, or the bizarre sequence where Jo's husband (Omari Hardwick) offers the most incomprehensible definition of homosexuality ever committed to film, culminating in the miraculous line, "I'm a man every day of the week. I'm a man. I'm just a man... who enjoys having sex... with... another... man" - and if you want to have a field day psychoanalyzing art, the fact that Perry, who must surely be aware of the rumors surrounding his sexual preferences, would sign his name to this kind of dysfunctional exploration of a gay man's hidden life (it is the biggest sustained moment given to any of the male characters throughout the movie) passes from "telling" to "unabashed self-parody".
I do not know where on the border between Bad, and Good, and So Bad It's Good, and Artifact From Another Planet For Colored Girls lies. I know only that watching it feels absolutely different from anything else in the world. It is surely not successful at its stated intentions, no matter how hard the actresses try to sell it, but it's hard to imagine how the film could possibly be more transfixing. It's closer anti-masterpiece than masterpiece, but I for one am terrifically glad it exists, for reasons I don't even quite understand.