It's a long, long way from the women's bar outside Berkeley, where Ntozake Shange first presented her combustible choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, in December 1974, to Atlanta's Tyler Perry Studios, where the impresario filmed much of this calamitous adaptation. Though striving for artistic legitimacy in bringing Shange's incomparable play to the screen, Perry indulges his worst instincts for melodrama in For Colored Girls, shoehorning her text into his own tawdry narrative — a process similar to watching Madea squeeze into a size 8 dress.
Hilton Als, in his critical essay on Perry in The New Yorker, presciently sounded the alarm back in April: “[H]e will likely emphasize Shange's sentimentality, rather than her force or her feminist radicalism.” Perry, the most financially successful black filmmaker ever, has shown interest in moving beyond shopworn suffering-and-redemption tales only twice before: in Why Did I Get Married? (2007), which succeeded as an honest attempt to examine real adult problems, and in the treatment of Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard's interracial friendship in the otherwise awful The Family That Preys (2008). Translating Shange's work to the screen, Perry — whose films nearly all began as plays — is tone-deaf to its passion and courage. Her play, touted at the time as “a celebration of being black and being woman,” is a collection of 20 prose-poems punctuated by dance and music and performed by a cast of seven women on a spare stage, each identified only by the color of her dress. Recounting rites of passage (losing one's virginity), horrors (rape, domestic violence), and pleasures (intellectual and carnal), Shange's text, whether seen live or read silently, soars with the power and precision of her language. Her women suffer and mourn, but they are never victims.
In Perry's version, almost all of them end up in the hospital. Expanding the number of central characters to nine—whose abject storylines frequently intersect in the walk-up where Thandie Newton's sex addict lives on the same floor as Kimberly Elise's battered common-law wife — and writing roles for the men only referred to in Shange's work, he re-creates the template found in many of his nine previous films: the martyred woman abused and/or deceived by her pathological mate.
For Colored Girls opens with Perry's women, all but one of them living or working in Harlem, starting their day, each reciting in voiceover a line or two from “Dark Phrases,” the poem that begins Shange's play (and culminates in “Let her be born/Let her be born/& handled warmly”). It's the only instance of her words flowing naturally and organically. Using 14 of the original's poems, he either weaves snippets of her language into his plot-propelled dialogue — so that lines from the original's “Pyramid” are repurposed as the teary explanation Kerry Washington's social worker gives to her husband about how she got an STD in college — or lifts entire passages outright with no transition from his own meager dialogue.
With the exception of some of the Madea movies' more inspired outbursts, Perry has rarely done much with language beyond rehashing the emptiest pop-psych, self-help speak. “I know I have issues with trust,” says Janet Jackson's icy magazine editrix, Jo — a complete Perry invention and one clearly modeled on Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada — to her husband, who helpfully responds: “You don't just have trust issues. You have issues.“
Jo's man, in another Perry contrivance, is on the down-low; she confronts him about his extramarital activities (“I see the way you look at other men: the pool boy in the Hamptons, my driver …”) after she gets the results of an HIV test — her positive status ludicrously hinted at twice in the film by a Camille-like cough. Shange updated her play by including a reference to safe sex and HIV during its 20th anniversary production, but Perry is incapable of staging a contemporary subject without resorting to broad, maudlin soap opera.
The greatest frustration—not just in For Colored Girls, but in Perry's entire oeuvre — is witnessing talented (and often criminally underemployed) actresses struggle with the material they've been given. Anika Noni Rose takes off when reciting Shange's words, only to be brought down into the abyss of Perry's melodrama after she is date-raped (a scene that further reveals the director's wrong moves when it comes to showing versus telling). Loretta Devine, playing a nurse, makes the awkwardly introduced Shange poem “Somebody Almost Walked Off Wid Alla My Stuff” sing. Everything else is too much — or not enuf.