Flying colors

Tyler Perry dramatically expands his repertoire with ambitious adaptation

Impressive ensemble performance in film version of Ntozake Shange’s black-feminist masterpiece.

Impressive ensemble performance in film version of Ntozake Shange’s black-feminist masterpiece.

For Colored Girls
Starring Thandie Newton, Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg and Anika Noni Rose. Directed by Tyler Perry. Tinseltown. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

For Colored Girls is the kind of movie some of us have always hoped Tyler Perry would make but feared he never would—because he didn’t have to. When he can produce something like Madea Goes to Jail for $6 million and pull in $70 million at the box office, why should he bother doing something really good? There’s no point telling McDonald’s their food is lousy when they’re selling Big Macs as fast as they can make them.

But Perry has always shown signs of a talent beyond the eccentric adventures of the sassy, no-nonsense Madea. His movies have a smooth polish that belies his often paltry budgets; where some filmmakers make every dollar show on the screen, Perry gives you something on the screen that looks like twice what he paid to put it there. And he almost always attracts a first-rate ensemble of actors who bring an energetic level of conviction to his scripts (often, frankly, more than their low comedy and overblown soap opera deserve). When Perry—writer, producer, director and sometimes star of his own movies—is good, he’s … well, pretty good, but always with a sense that if he got hungry enough, he could be a whole lot better.

For Colored Girls stretches the Perry formula, and makes him reach a little higher than the Madea movies, Why Did I Get Married? or Daddy’s Little Girls. His source is one of the seminal works of African-American feminist literature: Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Shange’s “choreopoem” (a term she coined to describe the work’s unique hybrid of dance, poetry and theater) originated as a workshop production in San Francisco in 1974, then crossed the country to New York, opening first off-Broadway, then on, in 1976. Shange’s play featured seven women identified only as colors (Lady in Red, Lady in Yellow, etc.) and presented 20 distinct yet interdependent poems about the experience of being a “colored girl” in a cross-section of America: Manhattan, Baltimore, San Francisco, St. Louis, and so on.

For his movie, Perry locates all of the women in the same city and grafts a plot—or rather, several intertwining plots—onto Shange’s poetry. The women are still subtly identified with colors, but now they have names: Juanita (Loretta Devine) runs a women’s health co-op and seeks support from Jo (Janet Jackson), an icy magazine editor; Jo’s assistant Crystal (Kimberly Elise) is abused by her live-in boyfriend; the welfare of Crystal’s two children is being investigated by social worker Kelly (Kerry Washington); across the hall from Crystal lives Tangie (Thandie Newton), a promiscuous good-time girl frowned on by apartment manager Gilda (Phylica Rashad); downstairs from Tangie lives her mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), a religious fanatic; and Alice’s other daughter Nyla (Tessa Thompson), a teenager taking dance lessons from Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), who is date-raped, bringing her into the care of Juanita.

The work isn’t entirely seamless. We’re acutely aware of where Perry’s dialogue lets off and Shange’s poetry begins. And some of the events described in the play’s verse monologues play a little too easily into Perry’s penchant for overheated melodrama—particularly in a frightened girl’s visit to a seedy back-alley abortionist (Macy Gray, in a gruesomely effective cameo) and in a shocking scene involving Crystal and her abusive boyfriend (Michael Ealy).

But Perry understands and honors the spirit of Shange’s choreopoem—the plight of women beset by limitations and problems imposed upon them, lightened and heartened by their underlying strength—and he’s faithful to the letter of it by setting key scenes in the context of Yasmine’s dance classes, and by including much of the music called for in the play’s stage directions on the movie’s soundtrack.

And that cast! Perry’s ability to attract talented players has seldom been better employed, and he handles them with a delicate touch. Not uniformly well: the piously intolerant Alice is two-dimensional, and Whoopi Goldberg is unable to play her without drawing unintentional laughs.

Still, For Colored Girls is an ambitious movie, strong and confident. It may not earn the money the next Madea will command, but it’s Perry at his best, delivering at last on his promise.