It's dated, theatrical and over the top. In the 35 years since the play's premiere, it still doesn't cut black men a lot of slack.
But Tyler Perry's film adaptation of Ntozoke Shange's legendary play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf bristles with passion, poetry and ambition. And if his For Colored Girls doesn't overcome the play's staginess or Perry's limitations as a dramatist, it's not because he doesn't give it his best shot, and his best cast — including Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine and Kerry Washington. He doesn't embarrass them, himself or the play.
Perry reset this "choreopoem" — seven archetypal women, dancers, delivering monologues — in an inner-city apartment building, setting up a community of relatives, neighbors, acquaintances and employees. The high-powered magazine publisher Jo (Janet Jackson, looking years and pounds younger than in her recent Perry films) lives uptown, where she suspects her man of cheating. Her employee, Crystal (Kimberly Elise, in a moving performance), is stuck in a dingy walk-up and in an abusive relationship with a man played by Michael Ealy.
Phylicia Rashad plays the nosy landlady, whose "I used to be you" is a favorite bit of advice that few of her tenants heed. There's sexually assertive bombshell barmaid Tangie (Newton, ferocious), who uses men and insultingly kicks them out the door in the morning. Juanita (Devine at her earthiest) is a nurse, struggling to teach neighborhood women safe sex and what not to put up with in relationships, even though she's putty in the hands of her two-timing man.
Never miss a local story.
Tangie's naïve younger sister Nyla (Tessa Thompson) is just now coming into her own sexually. And their cult-following mom (Goldberg, plainly out of practice as an actress) is no help, keeping the sisters apart, judging Tangie for her promiscuity. Nyla takes dance lessons from a great role model, Yasmine (Rose, probably best known from Dreamgirls), a proud woman who keeps her distance from men but conveys a sexy, self-assured gentility. And Kelly (Washington, wonderfully wounded) is the social worker who stumbles into some of these lives, mainly because of Crystal's unraveling home life.
It's a movie built on verbal flourishes, playwright Shange's purple turns of phrase. Juanita doesn't just confront her man (Richard Lawson). She lights him up — lyrically. "I have loved you assiduously for eight months, two weeks and a day."
A visit to a back-alley abortionist (Macy Gray) sees her decrying the "six blocks of cruelty" they all live in.
"Being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven't conquered yet" is the mantra here, a "dark phrase" that sums up these women as they face rape, murder, abortion and betrayal.
That high-minded language, delivered with "This is my close-up" bravado by the various players, can't help but provoke eye-rolling on occasion. Perry's additions to the script are more matter-of-fact than florid (he had to provide the plot), and he can't quite commit to making this a more artful take on the play. We can fret over what a real stage-to-screen wizard like Julie Taymor (The Tempest, Across the Universe) would have done with this material — something more daring, certainly.
But Perry's great gift to this unfilmable play is getting it on the screen, his sharp eye for casting and his evident affection and sympathy for black womanhood, even in movies in which he doesn't don a dress.