At a time when audiences line up to buy tickets for films based on toys, comic books and video games, a "choreopoem" provides particularly unusual cinematic source material. The label sticks to Ntozake Shange's award-winning 1975 stage play for colored girls who have considered suicide (when the rainbow is enuf) in which seven actresses, each costumed based on a different color, deliver poetic monologues about different facets of the female African-American perspective. Playhouses still frequently stage the show, despite its avant-garde structure.
For his film version, For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry assembles an ensemble that includes some of America's best and most celebrated actresses. Based on the film, Perry and his cast could have staged an excellent, straight-up theatrical version of Shange's play. Instead, for his first film not based on one of his own scripts, Perry opens up and literalizes the material while retaining the free verse monologues, giving For Colored Girls a bipolar personality that feels forever at odds with itself.
Many of the characters live in the same New York tenement apartment. Thandie Newton's promiscuous bartender Tangie lives upstairs from her college-bound younger sister Nyla (Tessa Thompson) and their mother Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), a religious fanatic. Their neighbors include the world-wise building manager Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) and an abused wife Crystal (Kimberly Elise) with two children terrorized by her husband (Michael Ealy), an unstrung war veteran. Crystal works for rich, icy fashion editrix Jo (Janet Jackson), who disrespects socially active nurse Juanita (Loretta Devine), and so on.
The women's problems primarily derive from men, especially their own misplaced faith in untrustworthy males. For Colored Girls' wrenching, soap-operatic plot twists include a brutal rape, a back-alley abortion, venereal infection and homicide.
Even without the poetic interludes, the film features sharp changes in tone. The apartment scenes with Newton, Rashad and the others unfold with casual naturalism. The glimpses of Jo's emotionally reserved office and home life feel closer to Devil Wears Prada caricature. Though unmistakably set in the present day, at times the film feels more like a product of the 1970s. When Nyla seeks out a black-market abortionist (Macy Gray), she makes her way down a street full of so many clichéd, vice-ridden figures, it may as well be Harry Potter's Knockturn Alley.
Sometimes Perry's script integrates Shange's soliloquies into conversation, such as the time when Juanita tells off her no-good boyfriend outside his apartment door. At other times, the women speak their interior thoughts aloud, but awkward transitions and repetitious close-ups mark the scenes. With few exceptions, particularly Juanita, the women seem to speak in the same poetic voice, rather than each one having a distinctive expression.
Jackson proves out of her depth but her co-stars emote their hearts out. For Colored Girls could earn some of its stars an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, with Newton and Elise proving the most vivid and memorable. Goldberg seems to relish the chance to play against her usual smart-alecky persona as half-deranged mother whose spiritual hypocrisy twists her in knots. (It's also interesting to see such a destructive religious person in a Tyler Perry film, although Goldberg's character isn't a Christian.)
Given Perry's obvious interest in African-American women and their struggles (he adapts a tradition of female-oriented melodramas that dates back to director Douglas Sirk), he seems fascinated by the chance to get inside their heads. It's difficult to imagine, however, any way to effectively retain the poetry for a film version. Have the women all hang at the same poetry slam club? Show them "break into verse" with the stylization of musical numbers? I didn't know how anyone could adapt Shange's choreopoem of the big-screen before I saw For Colored Girls. After seeing it, I still don't.