Friday, November 5, 2010

Many Different Textures 'For Colored Girls'

In the closing scene of "For Colored Girls," above, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Janet Jackson, Kimberly Elise, Phylicia Rashad, Loretta Devine, Tessa Thompson and Thandie Newton. Below in other scenes from the film, Kimberly Elise and Rhashad; Whoopi Goldberg and Tessa Thompson, as well as Kimberly Elise and Michael Ealy. Top photo by Patrick Harbron; all others by Quantrell Colbert.

NOT surprisingly, “For Colored Girls” is getting the same kind of criticism as “The Color Purple,” the film: It makes black men look bad. Only one (Hill Harper’s detective) is shown in a positive light.

It opens nationwide today.

Two thoughts. First, anyone with common sense and a thinking brain knows that there are many good black men out there; there are many bad black men out there, too. Alas, the bad boys garner the most notice, which flows into thought No. 2: don’t blame the messenger. Just as “The Color Purple” was faithful to Alice Walker’s book, so is this film - if not to the words - to the spirit of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Ntozake Shange's classic choreopoem that addresses abortion, abandonment, rape and love. The characters are named for colors i.e. blue, red. etc. Writer/director/producer Tyler Perry gives the characters actual names - a number of liberties that he takes.

“For Colored Girls” will likely have a greater impact than another seminal film, “Waiting to Exhale.” The latter resonated with black women because it was the first time in myriad moons that they saw themselves on film as successful, complicated, nuanced individuals. Women of all ethnic groups could relate to the difficulty of relationships and the importance of having friends when He leaves/strays. It was a smash at the box office. A similar fate awaits “For Colored Girls,” though purists will be furious with TP for what they consider sacrilege.

“For Colored Girls” features 10 (including Macy Gray in a weird cameo) black actresses. Just about every black actress in Hollywood wanted a part in the film. It is, of course, a book. And has been adapted for both television and the stage. An Obie award and Tony nomination are among its accolades.

Try as I might I was unable to treat the film like any other. I couldn’t take it for granted, for this was not ordinary. I was witnessing something extraordinary, and it was appropriate that I had butterflies in my stomach and occasionally held my breath. Tears betrayed my poker face a few times. There’s the incredible Loretta Divine and TP’s sometimes muse, Kimberly Elise, who has one of the most interesting faces in Hollywood. And Janet. And Thandie. And Kerry. And on and on and on. Sistahs. SISTAHS. Is there any wonder that TP told the women of "The View" that he was intimidated. Who wouldn't be with all of this talent and a work of such heft and depth?

While I cannot relate to all of the characters - not that I must - I relate to a significant number. Phylicia Rashad as Gilda, a nosy neighbor who means well, reminds me of so many elderly women in the village neighborhood where I came of age in the South. The love shown in the comfort/scolding she gives to both KE’s Crystal/Brown and Thandie Newton’s Tangie/Orange is palpable. It’s as if she took the words right out of the mouth of Miss Becky (my grandfather’s first cousin) or any of those wise ol' girls in the neighborhood. In the neighborhood, too, were hardworking women like LD’s Juanita/Green, giving love to everybody and getting none herself. Janet Jackson’s uptight, elitist, resonates, too. All are loving and hurting and simply trying to make a way the best way they know how in a world that is often cold and cruel to them.

Some – white males, for example, who are responsible in the main (because they hold most of these jobs) for the film’s largely negative reviews just as they were with “Sex in the City 2” – may believe one is making a big to-do about nothing. I beg to differ. One is making a big to-do about something. It is rare to see such a large number of actresses of any ethnic group in featured roles on the big screen. The last I recall was “The Women” in 2008, and that was a remake of the 1939 classic starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Rosalind Russell and others. Did 70 years really need to lapse between the two films? White males see themselves in myriad guises on TV and in film – every character type imaginable. Many can’t begin to understand when an under-represented group becomes excited about a film – or any entertainment – that features them, especially in a broad range of roles.

As captivating as it is, “For Colored Girls” is by no means a perfect film. TP does a competent job of wrapping the narrative around the poems, as well as threading/overlapping the various stories. The film, though, has disposable and plodding moments. An early scene in the dance class that introduces Nyla/Purple (Tessa Thompson) is contrived, and frankly, boring. Further, here is a spot where NS's prose is diluted to the point of blandness, not to mention that Purple is uttering the words of Yellow - TP inexplicably does this with other colors throughout the film. MG's boozey, back-alley abortionist is a caricature and cliche. Meanwhile, LD always gives good performance as she does here, however, sometimes her delivery is more suited to the stage. Occasionally, she delivers her dialogue so fast she is barely comprehensible. And the projection in her voice that works so well on stage comes across as screaming on screen.

Further, at moments in “For Colored Girls” seemingly nothing is happening. It’s as if TP thinks that just putting black women on the screen is sufficient. It is not enuf to just see ourselves, we need to see ourselves doing something interesting/engaging. Blacks and other non-Europeans/European-Americans are increasingly being cast in roles outside of the box. TP deserves some credit in this expansion. He is not, however, above, stooping to buffoonery. In “For Colored Girls,” it is manifested in histrionics that put soap operas to shame. One example is a scene that evokes the specter of Madear in which Micheal Ealy as KE’s war-scared husband, Beau Willie, comes utterly undone. Similarly, a heated argument between Alice/White (Whoopi Goldberg) and Tangie/Orange borders on the shrill, is hollow and is excruciatingly long. To TP’s credit, he spares the rape scene from any such violation. It is handled with great care and is one of the most powerful and affecting in the film.

Incidentally, Anika Noni Rose’s recitation of the “latent rapists'” poem is a tour de force. One feels to the core her sense of bewilderment, betrayal and shame; her hurt. One takes onto one's self her pain and sorrow because she owns these words. She is utterly convincing. Here is one of the few spots in the film where the poems are handled well. Kerry Washington's "pyramid" is another. Alas, LD’s ("somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff") sounds more like a sermon. The acting is visible and offputting in MG’s abortionist’s, "i used to live in the world." It doesn’t help that she delivers it in an almost singsong voice. It’s been a spell since I read the book, but this one seems terribly and poorly embellished, or it is simply the delivery. Janet Jackson lost an opportunity to break out of Jo’s repressive shell in a scene that serves as a prelude to “sorry.” It is here that one should begin to see the cracks in her armor, but she maintains the same one-note robotic delivery she adopts throughout the film.

Still, "For Colored Girls" offers a welcome cross-section of character types, complete with complications and foibles. One doesn’t mind so much that Thandie Newton is a whore when Anike Noni Rose is a girl next door. Or Janet Jackson’s Wintour-esque magazine editor when she is counterbalanced by Kerry Washington's social worker ...

Indeed, the film has numerous flaws. It also has it moments, including the opening and closing. They are sublime and divine.

“For Colored Girls” is rated R for some disturbing violence, including a rape, sexual content and language.

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