More than enuf man-bashing
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 5, 2010
Who, exactly, is "For Colored Girls" for?
It's hard to imagine that any self-respecting man would want to sit through two hours - let alone two minutes - of such caustic man-bashing. With the exception of a single minor character, the men in Tyler Perry's adaptation of Ntozake Shange's stage play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" include a rapist (Khalil Kain), a child murderer/wife beater (Michael Ealy), a serial cheater (Richard Lawson) and a closeted gay man who has been dipping into his wife's bank account without permission (Omari Hardwick).
And that's not even counting the minor jerks and misogynists who populate the fringes of this dated relic of the women's empowerment movement, written in 1975 as a series of free-verse monologues with dance, but rewritten by Perry to fit a more traditional narrative structure. All told, it paints a bleak picture of masculinity as the domain of liars and thieves, paranoid alcoholics, unemployed moochers, adulterers, batterers, sex addicts and pedophiles.
So it's a woman's film then?
That, at least, is the obvious assumption. At first glance, "For Colored Girls" seems aimed squarely at the audience for what a friend calls the "woman good, man bad" melodramas that are the staple of the Lifetime cable network.
But even by those sour standards, it's a long, hard slog. Rather than portraying strong, successful women overcoming adversity, the film presents its central female characters primarily as helpless victims and dupes, or worse yet, harpies. Janet Jackson's Jo may have been betrayed by a husband on the down-low, but she's also a singularly unpleasant shrew. Her fashion-magazine editor is cut from the same abrasive cloth as Meryl Streep's Miranda from "The Devil Wears Prada," but without the comedy.
Thandie Newton's Tangie is a foul-mouthed and even more foul-tempered tramp; her pregnant teenage sister, Nyla (Tessa Thompson), is the victim of a back-alley abortionist (Macy Gray). It's no wonder: Their mother (Whoopi Goldberg) is an emotionally withholding religious fanatic. For her part, Kimberly Elise does a great impersonation of a doormat, sticking by her man through beatings, fits of jealousy and worse.
There are, of course, a few quasi-heroic women, but even they have tribulations. Social worker Kerry Washington is coping with infertility. Nurse Loretta Devine keeps getting screwed over by the same philandering lout. And apartment manager Phylicia Rashad, though a pillar of emotional strength and decency, is alone in the world.
Then there's the dancer Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose). Perry shoots her date rape in such lurid, histrionic fashion that it goes beyond tragedy, eliciting titters of uncomfortable - not to mention wildly inappropriate - laughter at a screening, as did other scenes of near-Shakespearean wailing and gnashing of teeth.
It's such an unrelentingly downer, "For Colored Girls" makes "Precious" (which Perry produced, but did not direct) look like "Pollyanna."
Making matters worse, the language of Shange's original "choreopoem" hasn't aged well. Whenever one of the women breaks out of Tyler's naturalistic dialogue into Shange's jazzy, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar lingo, the story's connection to the real world is severed, utterly. It feels corny, recycled and hopelessly artificial. As vitally important as the feminist movement of the 1970s was - and still is - haven't we outgrown its cheesy stylistic affectations?
The film is not, however, without its bright spots. Given the at-times-ridiculous poetry the cast must utter - "My love is too Saturday night to have thrown back on my face" - the actresses all acquit themselves well enough. That includes Jackson, whose surgically enhanced face, though largely frozen, suits her imperious character.
"For Colored Girls" may, in fact, be Perry's best film (not saying a lot, I know). It's certainly his first bid, as a director, for art-house respectability. The real question, however, isn't whether the movie is any good. It's why - and for what theoretical audience - did he he make it?
Contains violence, obscenity, sensuality, drug use, partial nudity and smoking.