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For Colored Girls

November 6, 2010

For Colored Girls

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: there are those who would say I don’t have the standing to review For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry’s adaptation of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. And I’ll admit they have a point; I’m very definitely not an African-American woman from upper Manhattan, and I will likely never contact any part of that culture as anything but an outsider. So I’ll be up-front that I come to this movie from the outside looking in.

Ntozake Shange’s original stage play consisted of twenty poems performed by a cast of seven women, each identified by a color of the rainbow. Perry names the characters, fleshes out the narrative between the poems, weaves them together, contextualizes them in upper Manhattan, and updates the story to fit 2010 instead of 1975. Actually, except for some of the language — you don’t hear “colored” very often anymore — it’s surprising how well the material holds up.

The ensemble cast all turn in excellent performances: Crystal (Kimberly Elise) is a mother trying to protect her children from an abusive father; Jo (Janet Jackson) is a high-powered magazine editor whose husband is on the down-low; Juanita (Loretta Devine) is a nurse setting up a community center while falling back into the same relationship with the same unfaithful boyfriend time and again; Tangie (Thandie Newton) is a promiscuous bartender; Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) is a dance teacher in a new relationship; Kelly (Kerry Washington) is a social worker, protecting unwanted children and yet unable to bear any of her own; Nyla (Tessa Thompson) is a promising young student about to enter college, but who finds herself pregnant and ; Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) is an apartment manager, with a certain amount of her own experience; and Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) is a mother turning to a fringe religious tradition to escape her own past and to save her daughter from it.

The down-low husband is the only wholly new section; all the rest were around in 1975, with only minor modifications. Crystal’s husband is an alcoholic with anger issues returning from “the war”, which easily slips from the original Vietnam to the current Afghanistan. And while abortions are more easily available, a back-alley butcher still lurks behind every promise to repeal Roe v. Wade. For all the progress we’ve made as a whole in the last 35 years, there’s a lot that remains the same.

The original poems are still in place, now as monologues; their poetry remains as fluid and powerful as ever. Perry isn’t as good a writer as Shange was, but he seems to have taken some inspiration. The dialogue between the monologues has its own poetry, like a recitative between arias; but ultimately its main purpose is to set us up for the monologues themselves.

And these poems are the heart and soul of the movie. Shot in brutal close-ups, they are the mirror held up to society, saying “this is who you are; you have to take some responsibility for this, or you’ll never move past it.” They remind us that we’re all outsiders to each other. Here are nine different “colored girls”, all with rich, detailed inner lives that defy the reductionism inherent in any two-word category: “white man”, “illegal immigrant”, “tea partier”, “Islamic fundamentalist”. Even within the group, they’re much more than “irresponsible”, “self-involved”, “flighty”, “slut”, “frigid”, “meddling”, “goody-goody”, or “old hag”. Everyone must come to terms with her own human flaws, and embrace the gloriously messy fractured humanity in those around her.

Worth it: yes
Bechdel test: pass. It would have been hard to fail.

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