November 06, 2010

MOVIES: For Colored Girls (Tyler Perry, 2010)

For Colored Girls is a spectacularly ambitious hodgepodge of a movie. At its best, it can be immensely powerful; at its worst, it's filled with overwrought melodrama.

Tyler Perry's approach to Ntozake Shange's series of monologues/poems is to flesh out the women who speak them, giving them backstories and interconnections. Perry's plot lines are what we've come to expect from him, stories of African-American women and how they suffer at the hands of their hateful men. (There is only one significant male character in the movie who does not in some way betray or abuse the woman he's involved with.)

The transitions from Perry's workaday dialogue to Shange's monologues are awkward. It's always clear when one of Shange's poems has arrived; we shift to extreme closeup, the strings get over-the-top sappy, and the actress takes on a demeanor that says "prepare to be awed by the beauty of this speech and by the artistry with which I declaim it."

Perry and his cast get so caught up in the music of the language that they forget that his plot requires them to be actual people. You can get away with that sort of recitation on stage, when the entire show is built of that heightened speech, but it's less effective when it lands in disconnnected plodding chunks.

Kimberly Elise gives the movie's best performance as a woman trying to maintain a normal life despite the presence of her abusive boyfriend, and there is also fine work from Anika Noni Rose as a dance instructor stepping tentatively into the dating world, and Tessa Thompson as her most gifted student, preparing to leave for college. Janet Jackson is better than I'd have expected as a hard-edged magazine editor, though her vocal and physical resemblance to her brother Michael is distractingly eerie.

Less successful are Whoopi Goldberg as a tyrannical mother caught up in a religious cult, and Phylicia Rashad as the manager of the apartment building where several of the women live. To be fair, Rashad is saddled with the movie's worst character, forced to whip back and forth between judgmental snoop and caring Earth Mother.

There's a stretch in the middle of the movie where Perry's fondness for big emotion runs away with him. We cut back and forth between an operatic aria and a rape; Elise's character arc reaches its climax with an act so monstrous that we might as well be watching a Godzilla movie; a visit to a back-alley abortionist is depicted as a Tea Party nightmare of life in the inner city, all gibbering homeless people and closeups of terrifying gynecological tools shot through fisheye lenses.

But when the movie works, it reaches glorious heights. Loretta Devine's monologue ("someone tried to steal alla my stuff") sings gloriously, and Kimberly Elise's speech at the end of the movie is almost unbearably poignant. Perry's interweaving of the storylines, and the way in which he gradually brings the women together, is quite effective, and the relationship between sisters Tessa Thompson and Thandie Newton is particularly convincing.

And the movie serves as a sad reminder that it is still too damned hard for black actors and actresses to find good roles in good movies. There are actresses here who are as good, and have consistently been as good, as anyone in their generation -- Devine, Elise, Rashad, Kerry Washington -- and we too rarely get to see them in movies. They are worth seeing here, and for all of its flaws -- and lord knows, there are flaws -- so is the movie.

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