By Brian Prisco | Film | November 8, 2010 |
By Brian Prisco | Film | November 8, 2010 |
There’s an unfair dichotomy between white directors and directors of color, in that whenever a black or Asian or Hispanic director helms a film, he’s somehow expected to represent his entire race, and that by hook or by crook he’s got to make a film solely that speaks to people of his color. Now some filmmakers choose to embrace this, and others simply make what they are going to make, race be damned. Tyler Perry chooses to don the mantle of the Voice of Black America - and so he knew damn well what he was getting into when he chose this project. He wanted to win an Oscar. And it wasn’t a bad choice, taking on Ntozake Shange’s seminal “for colored girls…”, which is practically sacred scripture among not just black thespians but all theatre folk. It’s a gorgeous choreopoem — 20 poems set to dance and to music, seven strong women of color — black, mostly, but there are some Latinas, and Perry’s uncanny ability to draw in a dynamic cast. I had hoped with his theatrical background and the hectoring eye of Oprah gazing upon him that Perry would let the material speak for itself and simply jazz up the backgrounds. I expected Perry to maybe do what Baz Luhrman did with Romeo + Juliet, leave the text — with a few colorful alterations — but modernize and simply let his actresses flourish. Such is the power of Shange’s text that the piece is fluid and improvisational — the poetry can be divvied up like a chorus of Greek furies or can be spoken to or at anyone. But that was my fault for misjudging the arrogance of Tyler Perry. Because he made the same fucking mistake he always makes: He made a goddamn Tyler Perry movie. So we’re stuck with these stunning performances of these gorgeous pieces of poetry floating like chunks of beef in the melodramatic swill of Tyler Perry’s writing. Hopefully when audiences see the glory of Shange’s writing juxtaposed next to the soapoperatic histrionics of Perry, the spell will be broken.
The play consists of seven women each depicting a different color of the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, plus brown, and each from a different city. They commingle, telling their own stories and the stories of various women, and delivering poems on such heinous topics such as abortions, rape, and abuse. It’s heartbreaking but hopeful, because for every story of being broken down by a man or by society, there’s another about a lady who won’t take that shit no more, who discovers that she is beautiful and valuable and powerful. Perry takes this spirit and sets everything in New York, in the same tenement, where the characters interweave through their own relationships and stories. He also creates characters for the various women who are spoken of in the story. Each of the characters is given a name, but the color motif is retained through wardrobe. I think this is actually an improvement on the sort of free form of the play, and this structuring acts as a fertile soil to nurture each of the flowery poetic monologues. There’s still dance: one character is a ballet student to another’s ballet teacher. But the entire piece is more communal, more like a neighborhood coming together and living amongst one another - it’s definitely in the spirit of what Shange wanted for her own performance piece.
But from there, things take a dip for the Perry. It becomes Why Did I Get Married Three? A successful businesswoman (Janet Jackson) with a fierce streak and a disdain for the streets from which she came has a philandering husband (Omari Hardwick). Her assistant (Kimberly Elise) is in an abusive relationship with her veteran boyfriend (Michael Ealy) (it’s Vietnam in the original work, but it’s never established in the film), who threatens her children and drinks too much. Two sisters, a bartender who fucks who she pleases (Thandie Newton) and the other a young college student (Tessa Thompson), work to please their overly-religious mother (Whoopi Goldberg). The college students dance teacher (Anika Noni Rose) is raped by her friend. The welfare services counselor (Kerry Washington) can’t have children of her own so she tries to protect the children of others - mostly at the behest of the nosy neighbor (Phylicia Rashad) who clucks her tongue at the shameful ways of her neighbors. And a nurse (Loretta Devine) tries to run a free-clinic in the community while tangling with her on again off again boyfriend.
Again, all of these stories are taken for the most part from the original poems, but in the context Perry places them, it all feels like one of his usual melodramas. Only with an R rating, the stakes are so much more horrific. So what we end up with feels like a bad musical with great music. In the midst of these kind of trite relationship scuffles, one of the women goes off into this gorgeous bit of poetic discourse. In these moments, when the nurse - the Lady in Green - gives her speech to the ladies of her clinic programs about how her man “almost took all her stuff” or when the dance teacher - The Lady in Yellow - delivers her tearful rape poem from the hospital bed to a waiting detective, you realize what the film could have been. And when each of these moments is bookended with the detective muttering stoically, “We’ll go get that sonofabitch,” you sigh for what Tyler Perry made of them. Janet Jackson, playing the Lady in Red, has an outstanding scene where she finally confronts her husband. They sit back to back, in a cold spacious Manhattan apartment, with the vast expanse of their marital bed between them as she fires off the famous “save your sorries” speech. And it’s done in beautiful closeup with tears spilling down her face, as her character finally gets her moment to break out of the stupid magazine magnate cage Perry thrust her into. And as she finished, her husband mutters something like, “So I guess we’re through.” And I wanted to find the cage where the bird does its singing and free it to peck out the eyes of Tyler Perry for getting his grubby sticky little kid jelly sandwich fingerprints all over that magnificent fucking speech.
Perry knows how to cast, and despite the round-robin-ing that went on with the different actresses, he really could not have asked for a better assembly of actresses. From youngest to oldest, everyone gets the moment to cry and weep and be strong for the cameras. And while normally that’s me mocking the drama of the situation, it’s kind of miraculous to see such a showcase. It really does feel like an ensemble piece, and just like the rainbow for which it’s named, each one shines beautifully. Even the extra characters like Phylicia Rashad who’s kind of The Lady in Brown but not quite, and Macy Gray as Rose the abortionist, are remarkable. Perry wrote terrible trite dialogue for them, but the men in the film act the shit out of it - especially Ealy, but props need to go to Khalil Kain, Hill Harper, and Richard Lawson as well, as the various horrible men who people the film. Yes, it’s one of those damn films where there’s not a single good man in sight, but the film is about the plight and struggle of black women in society, so it’s forgivable. And while the entire cast is fucking brilliant, I’m going to take the time to point out how fucking awesome Loretta Devine is in this film. She explodes like a ball of sunshine every moment she’s on the screen. Also, Thandie Newton turned in a performance I didn’t think she was capable of, since she’s normally cast as the stick-thin stick-it-in for action stars, watching her tear it up as The Lady in Orange was pretty badass.
I placed my faith in Perry and he let me down. I thought even he wouldn’t have the balls to say he could speak for black women, and take what amounts to the scripture of black feminist theatre and turn it into one of his usual “mmhmm” flicks. The material is so strong it’s even resistant to Perry’s ministrations, and the cast is so good, you don’t mind suffering through his speechifying to get to Shange’s poems. And it certainly is Perry’s finest work to date - mostly because over half of it isn’t his work. Oprah was right, “for colored girls …” isn’t filmable. Had they simply tried to make a Blagina Monologues version - with just the actresses reading the poems - I think it would have been more powerful, but still ultimately a failure. A film needs to breathe and move - and “for colored girls…” is a live piece of theatre. But filming a stage doesn’t give you that same electricity that crackles from the live actors performing before you. I think had Tyler Perry given the script to maybe Susan-Lori Parks, this might have worked better. But Tyler Perry’s busted his ass so hard to get on top, he’s never going to hand the reins to anyone ever again. And so we turn poetry into a Dramatic “227” Redux.