11/08/2010 12:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The 'Colored Girls' House of Pain

When it comes to what he puts on the big and small screen, no one can accuse Tyler Perry of avoiding controversy. His latest production, a film version of the classic Black stage play, "For Colored Girls...Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," will open a Pandora's box of debate, celebration, denunciation and hand-wringing.

Obviously this is the same scenario that Perry has faced with his many plays and movies featuring the gun-toting grandma Madea, which he plays himself. Many consider his TV sitcoms an up-to-date minstrel show. And, certainly, the same reaction greeted last year's controversial, award-winning film "Precious," which Perry co-executive produced with Oprah Winfrey.

Sure, some of the hand-wringing will seem unfair. It's just a movie, some will say. And Perry has every right to continue to explore difficult and painful issues in the Black community--which he identifies with, as a victim of physical and sexual abuse himself, and as a storyteller that has attracted a faithful following of Black women whose stories and lives have been ignored by Hollywood.

But we the viewers also have every right to respond, and speak our own truth to Hollywood power, and to question why stories about our larger systemic enemies, stories of triumph over overwhelming societal odds, stories of love and support for each other, our mind-blowing epics of history, don't receive the same big screen treatment. Those can be "just movies" too. But, for now, these types of stories don't seem to mesh with the soap opera-chitlin circuit narratives from which Perry has emerged and--as the one Black director having his way in Hollywood--sits most comfortably.

The book of poems and stage play by Ntozake Shange was a cultural phenomenon in the late 1970's. I remember reading a portion of it to fellow students my predominantly White high school English class and being met by more than one snide stare and response.

Back then, a new generation of Black women writers were hitting their stride. Some touted this literary movement as giving voice to the voiceless in the aftermath of a Black Arts Movement dominated by men. Others, including a vocal chorus of Black men, criticized many of these new texts as anti-Black male diatribes that were supported by the corporate publishing industry. I remember one Black male columnist from The Philadelphia Tribune, my hometown Black newspaper, saying that the play was like having "a family feud in public."

The original play traveled from Berkeley, California, to off-off Broadway, then to off-Broadway, and then finally Broadway in 1976. It is made up of 20 poems, recited by seven female characters that are only known by a color, such as Lady in Red or Lady in Blue. As poems in a book or as a monologue on stage, expressions by the women were understood as each one telling a story about her life. One challenge Perry faced is to give each story an actual setting and to more fully flesh out each character.

He does partially meet this challenge. The overall production is of a high quality. The stellar cast, which includes Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg and Kimberly Elise (tragic that, for some, this may be their only big role on the big screen this year), squeezes some nuance out of Perry's often heavy-handed dialogue. Movie fans might be happy to know that I only count two or three times when Perry resorts to his melodramatic violin music to ruin a poignant moment.

The overall production, however, only highlights the deficiencies of the material for a movie. What may feel creative and expansive in a book or maybe on stage feels claustrophobic and myopic on the big screen. "For Colored Girls" keeps playing the same note of agony over and over, as each narrative recounts the abuse that a Black woman has faced from Black men in her life. The Black female columnist sitting next to me at the screening said afterward that she is starting to think that Perry "doesn't like Black people."

I didn't have quite that extreme of a reaction. Shange's poetry adds a welcome artistic flair to the production, and makes each character her own Greek chorus of grief. Unfortunately, the combined effect is that this chorus of grief is overwhelming. It is so unrelenting that it defeats its own purpose to be taken seriously or with sympathy. This is the colored girls house of pain.

This review originally appeared on

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