When ambition isn’t ‘enuf’…

November 7, 2010

Powerful words can always be powerful words.  When written, when sung, when thought, when spoken.  The context in which those words are placed may cloud the conviction and confuse its receiver but the heart of the locution remains full of possibility.  In the same way that Shakespeare’s classics maintain their integrity hundreds of years after they were written, despite misguided reincarnations and lackluster reimaginations, Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” can depend solely on its skeletal literary genius to carry it through rehashing and excerpting.  So it becomes impossible for me to completely shun a film adaptation of Shange’s tour-de-force, for it still finds Shange’s words in proper form.

Tyler Perry attempted an ambitious feat when taking on, the now shortened, “For Colored Girls” as a silver screen project.  Turning a performance piece composed of 20 poems with characters who identify themselves by colors and not names is no easy task -– and perhaps it was an unnecessary one.  The film finds Perry in his best filmmaking form but that simply isn’t enough to keep up with the sophistication of Shange’s work.  Given the arduous duty of making a cohesive film out of the separated beauty of the play is to be credited.  The credit seemingly ends there.  Perry’s ability to capture the plight of these women while developing a unified story becomes almost as fantastical his Madea money train.  It is as if he was given all of the important tools to succeed but realized how over his head he was after the first scene.

(Spoiler alert.  Click to keep reading…)

The film has its moments of cinematic contentment.  One scene juxtaposes the character Jo (portrayed by a stark and icey Janet Jackson) being moved to tears by an Opera while the rape of another character intertwines with the aria’s climax.  This is as good as any other filmmaker could pull off.  The unease of female and male relationships throughout the film was captured effectively as well.  However, some characters are relatively underdeveloped so their words lose punch and the audience can’t understand the connectedness the character could possibly have with the words she speaks.

Perry, taking on the writing credit as well, uses Shange’s words but creates his own and combines them haphazardly with hers.  Therefore in the same way that Perry’s films carelessly drift between comedy and drama, “For Colored Girls” moves between Shange’s complex, slow burning prose and Perry’s to-the-point one-liners that make his target fan base react uproariously with yells, laughs and shouts time and time again.  The line separating the two grows increasingly thin and borderlines on awkward.  It almost becomes laughable how a character, such as sex crazed Tangie (uninhibitedly performed by Thandie Newton) can slither between uncouth expletives and delicate metaphor.  In a bid to seem “with the times, “Perry also adds an HIV arc by way of a “down-low” husband.  This further stigmatizes and attempts to disassociate the filmmaker from a group of people who he cinematically hopes we, as the audience, think he does not belong to but whom he takes a large amount of money from at the box office anyway.  It is the addition of this story arc that further implicates black gay men in Perry films as emasculated beings and a threat to heterosexual women and their sexuality, but that is a discussion and post for another time.

The beating heart of the film, the consistent life force, is with the talented group of actresses Perry assembled.  Kimberley Elise proves, yet again, why she is criminally underrated.  Anika Noni Rose translates her talent as a stage actress to the screen seamlessly. Kerry Washington does what she can with what she is given and what she is able to do ends up quite strong.  Janet Jackson, though relatively one-dimensional, delivers her lines with a surprising convincingness and Thandie Newton goes no-holds-bar in a role that sees her eventual vulnerability as nothing less than honest.  Loretta Devine is outstanding, delivering line after line with a certainty that resonates even after leaving the theatre.  Whoopi Goldberg and Phylicia Rashad assist as matriarchal characters though neither is used as well as they could have been.

“For Colored Girls” at its core is an adequate film with a message of feminism and unity amidst tragedy that is worth the ticket price.  However, with films such as Precious coming before it, it is difficult not to toy with the thought of how the work would have translated in the hands of another leader.  Perry or any other director aside, Shange’s piece will always carry an amazing level of dignity no matter what medium it finds itself in.  However, what should have been a testament to that dignity comes off as a test-run for a truer adaptation that has yet to be made.


One comment

  1. Outstanding points! And well written (GO OFF!)

    I totally agree with the stigma associated with gay men and the “DL” phenomenon. Though I think Jackson’s character’s reaction can be read somewhat progressive. The line “go be yourself” in response to her husband’s infidelity initially could be read as removed, disdain and go live an responsible life, however, Janet’s delivery of the line suggests to me that Perry was saying “just be yourself…don’t marry women..have sex with men”. Again this is all subtext and the beauty of art it can have various meanings. Although I clearly was over the 1980s “coughing” bit. It seemed overrated and not relevant to the plight of HIV today. It seemed stereotypical and seemed to continue the miseducation about the current state of HIV in this country.

    I also wondered if another director such as Lee Daniels would have delivered any better. My answer is that it is to hard to tell. From the simple nature of the play (as you have suggested) there is a lot going on and it’s hard to make all of these different characters mold into one cohesive story.

    I did like his writing mixed with the writing of Shange because of his “lay” writing mixed with her complex prose. I think it was actually essential to relate the poetry for those who do not either understand or have a point of reference to relate poetry for their everyday lives. I think his writing “contemporarized” (for a lack of a better term) Shange’s writings and made it relevant to many (especially younger girls) who may need a more direct relate to their life.

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