*For Colored Girls (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Indie filmmaker Tyler Perry has spun an unlikely career out of catering to underserved black audiences with excruciatingly unwatchable films. Often, they feature Perry himself in an old-lady fat suit. Oddly, audiences have eaten them up, when the presumed reaction to them might be embarrassment.
Now, finally, Perry has made a film that doesn't pander, that has something meaningful to say — something actually worth hearing — and that is more than merely watchable. For Colored Girls is an extraordinary ode to the lives of women. These women happen to be black, but many of their trials will be familiar to all women of all colors. Any man who'd like an insight into the complexity of modern women's lives should give this film a look, too.
Based on the poem/play by Ntozake Shange titled "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," the film interweaves the stories of women young and old, rich and poor, in difficult romantic partnerships and alone. All are navigating complicated relationships with siblings and mothers, bosses and employees, while the larger world gives them little regard and less respect.
There's Phylicia Rashad's Gilda, who keeps a weather eye on her neighbors, party girl Tangie (Thandie Newton) and frazzled working mother Crystal (Kimberly Elise), who is also contending with an abusive husband (Michael Ealy). Crystal works for bitch-on-wheels Jo (Janet Jackson). Social worker Kelly (Kerry Washington) is keeping an eye on Crystal's kids. Tangie is fighting with her mom, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg). Juanita (Loretta Devine) is giving romance one last shot before she kicks her boyfriend out. Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) has a sweet new boyfriend who's coming to her place for the first time ...
Like last year's Precious, this is often a hard movie to watch. Perry graphically broaches matters from rape and abortion to unsafe sex and domestic violence. This isn't a joyful movie, except in, paradoxically, a mournful sense: in finding the strength not to let really bad shit keep you down and in finding the power to do what needs to be done and move forward rather than sitting still. That mustering of inner resources and the flaying bare of inner desires and anxieties comes when the movie pauses to let these rare women — we simply don't see many like them handled with such honest rawness on film — deliver Shange's verse in the manner of Shakespearean monologue. (Think: how characters in cheerier movies break into song at dramatic, emotional moments.)
That sense of heightened reality makes forgivable the melodrama into which Perry's adaptation of those poems sometimes descends. It's all slightly less preposterous than it might otherwise feel. For Colored Girls is far from perfect, but it is honest and insightful regarding the lives of women. Which would be enough to applaud it, but it also features heartfelt performances by actresses who rarely have the chance to work with material like this on screen. Loretta Devine, in particular, shrugs off lame comedic routines, demonstrating a real ability to act.
Now the question is: Will the audiences who've flocked to Perry's insulting, idiotic films about a fake woman turn out to see a downer of a movie about real women?