by Manohla Dargis
Tyler Perry has been led out to critical slaughter so many times, it might seem a wonder that he continues to make movies. Except that Mr. Perry addresses his movies to black audiences and, until recently, has shown relatively little interest in crossing over. His enormous commercial success with a mainly black audience and the often ferociously hostile reviews from mostly white critics might seem symptomatic of an insurmountable racial divide. Black people love him and white people don’t get him, and that sort of thing, which might be somewhat true but ignores that another important dividing line runs along taste and not color.
There are other lines separating audiences, and whether you like Mr. Perry’s work may depend on your color or sex or love of boiling melodrama, ribald comedy, abrupt tonal shifts, blunt social messages, unforced talk about God and flourishes of camp, sometimes whipped together in one scene. The orgiastic wedding that brings “Madea’s Family Reunion” to its dizzying finish features a muscleman blowing like Gabriel under a ceiling from which women dressed as angels hang like ornaments, some playing instruments — including a white piano — a display of outrageous imagination that is either a nod to Busby Berkeley or the product of a lunatic vision such as (some) fever dreams are made of.
Mr. Perry is, it goes without saying, a maximalist, informed by theatrical traditions (from the church and his stage work on the chitlin’ circuit) and the golden age of Hollywood. He likes big moments, glamorous stars, swells of music and tears that fall like rain — and sometimes hail. For most of his career he has not been a good filmmaker, in terms of making beautiful pictures and putting those images into kinetic motion, though the same can be said of other name directors. He isn’t a visual stylist, certainly. His strengths lay elsewhere, including his work with performers, which over the course of his prolific career has only improved, as evidenced by his latest, “For Colored Girls,” a thunderous storm of a movie.
The film is based on Ntozake Shange’s electric play, the self-described choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” Inspired by “our mothers,” including Isis, Zora Neale Hurston, Anna May Wong and Calamity Jane, the work was first staged in 1974 as a work in progress and performed ever since, including on Broadway. It is a classic of its unapologetic feminist era, consisting of some 20 poems accompanied by choreographed movement and music, including a blast of Martha and the Vandellas. The characters are seven chromatically differentiated women (brown, yellow, purple, red, green, blue and orange) from points across the country, who recite “dark phrases of womanhood” (the first words in the play) involving infanticide, incest and other horrors. (Mr. Perry adds two more women.)
That might sound unbearable, but done right it’s thrilling — specific in its pain, universal in its reach — and Mr. Perry works very hard and gets it mostly right. He succeeds even when art seems to have taken a back seat to commercial choices, as in the casting of Janet Jackson, who plays Jo, a magazine editor cut along the same cool lines of Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Ms. Jackson is, to put it gently, an actress of limited expression. But her quiet presence has force, partly because of her eerie resemblance to her brother Michael, though also because her character’s brittle hauteur, self-involved privilege and artificiality has — like the martyrs in ermine played by the likes of Lana Turner — its own weird truth.
Ms. Jackson’s marquee value, like that of Thandie Newton and Whoopi Goldberg, who play a warring mother and daughter, is doubtless its own justification. But the real draws in this version of “For Colored Girls” are the less familiar names, like Kimberly Elise, who plays Crystal, Jo’s beleaguered assistant. Ms. Elise appeared in Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved” in 1998 (alongside Ms. Newton) and starred in the 2005 breakout hit, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” written by Mr. Tyler. She returns memorably in his new film as a woman who, in surrendering to her abuse (Michael Ealy plays her desperate lover-tormentor), pays a price so harrowing it’s almost impossible to watch. Ms. Elise enrages you with Crystal’s acquiescence and then, as she should, she rips into your heart.
Though amended and amplified in Mr. Perry’s screenplay, Crystal’s story comes straight from the play. Mr. Perry has scrambled around the order of the poems, added his own connective tissue and characters, and shifted the time to the present, even while leaving resonant lines and swathes of passages intact. (“I usedta live in the world/now i live in harlem & my universe is six blocks.”) The film opens with three performers in a dance studio, one of a number of nods to the play’s themes, including an illegal abortion that is not the anachronism some might hope or believe. But there are changes, including Mr. Perry’s love of melodramatic excess, that initially seem antithetical to Ms. Shange’s ferociously unsentimental original.
Throughout the film the characters move among realisms (kitchen sink, sudsy soap, exaggerated theatricality), connecting and separating, initially alone, though increasingly in synchronous harmony. In one scene played for broad laughs and loud outrage, a nurse, Juanita (the buoyant Loretta Devine), solicits money from Jo for her new health clinic for poor women. Jo icily rebuffs the request: “I give to Africa. I give to AIDS.” Later, after her heart has been broken yet again, Juanita picks up the pieces and with dry eyes and musicality recites some of Ms. Shange’s signature lines (“somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff”) to a room of women chiming in with sisterhood — woman to woman — that is the play’s heart.
There are roughly managed patches, including a rape that Mr. Perry crosscuts with an opera performance being watched by another character. The editing muddles his intentions, yet the assault, however awkwardly framed, contains an astonishing detail of the flailing victim fixing her eyes on a clock, waiting for an eternity to end. It’s a brilliant encapsulation of how life sometimes freezes in time.
As it turns out, Mr. Perry, while busily establishing his economic independence, has been finding his voice as a filmmaker. And here, working with fine performers like Ms. Elise,Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad and Kerry Washington, he sings the song the way he likes it — with force, feeling and tremendous sincerity.
“For Colored Girls Only” will be available on Blu-Ray and DVD on Feburary 8th, 2010.