Saying that For Colored Girls is the most disciplined, least clownish film that Tyler Perry has made -- his best film to date -- is faint praise indeed. And that's how it's meant.
For starters, his other movies until now have been cartoony travesties, audience hits in the same way that Benny Hill used to please audiences: by appealing to their basest instincts and their lowest-common denominators. Perry has dealt in stereotypes and rude humor, with a side order of sanctimony.
But For Colored Girls springs, at least nominally, from the pen of poet Ntozake Shange. And some of her poetry has survived, making this movie automatically more literate, thoughtful and subtle than anything Perry so far has shown himself capable of.
But that's about as far as I'm willing to go. Shange's play was a collection of poetic monologues, artfully sketched thumbnail lives of a variety of black women. They celebrated their joyous attachments to and enjoyment of life's pleasures -- and mourned their pain, their violation, their disappointments and their tragedies. It was an impressionistic portrait of black womankind.
Perry, however, feeling the imperative of making a narrative film out of a theatrical collage, makes concrete and literal everything that Shange merely suggested. That includes spouse abuse, rape, child murder and the like.
Perry adds male characters to give the women an opposite -- but the storylines he's given them are clichés. Each of the women gets the opportunity to suddenly burst into Shange's poetic arias. But the connective tissue that links the various stories (most of the women live in the same Harlem walk-up) amounts to a college course in black social pathology -- or perhaps just human pathology.
Beside the abusive spouse and the dancer who suffers a date rape, there's the powerful female executive (Janet Jackson) whose position apparently so emasculates her stockbroker husband that he's cruising other guys in Harlem alleys. Then there's the religious zealot mother (Whoopi Goldberg) whose daughters are, chronologically, a man-hungry bartender (Thandie Newton) and an innocent teen (Tessa Thompson) who gets pregnant the first time she has sex.
And not just pregnant -- she even tracks down a back-alley abortionist (played with lip-smacking subtlety by singer Macy Gray) who nearly kills her. Back-alley abortion? That might have been relevant and timely in the mid-1970s when Shange's play originated, immediately after Roe v. Wade was handed down -- a look back at the bad old days from a ruefully short distance. But, 35 years after For Colored Girls had its debut, it just seems anachronistic -- particularly in New York.
Don't get me wrong. The women of this film all shine, hitting strong emotional notes that ring true even when Perry's adaptation feels false. Each one gets one or more of Shange's arias to play in a single take (or nearly so) and Perry wisely keeps his camera on them. Beside the aforementioned actresses, there's good work here by Loretta Devine, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad and others.
So let's just say that For Colored Girls is a barely competent film (which is a big step up for Perry), illuminated by luminous performances. In the hands of another filmmaker, those actresses might have approached an award-winning level. Too bad.