Indie filmmaker Tyler Perry has spun an unlikely career out of catering to underserved black audiences by giving them excruciatingly unwatchable minstrel-show movies -- often featuring himself in an old-lady fat suit as the caricature granny "Madea" -- that they inexplicably eat up when the obvious reaction to them might be embarrassment rather than acceptance. 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: It's 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 ... and any man who'd like an insight into the complexity of modern women's lives should give it a look, too.
Based on the poem-play by Ntozake Shange entitled 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 or alone, and 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 vet husband (Michael Ealy) and her boss, 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 -- matters from rape to abortion to unsafe sex to domestic violence are broached, graphically: this isn't a joyful movie, except in, paradoxically, a mournful sense, in finding the strength not to let really bad experiences keep you down, 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 laying 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 ... or as how characters in cheerier movies may break into song at dramatic, emotional moments.
That sense of heightened reality makes forgivable the melodrama Perry's adaptation of those poems sometimes descends into. It's all slightly less preposterous than it might otherwise feel. For Colored Girls is far from perfect, but it is honest and insightful about 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 film. (I honestly never believed, prior to this, that Loretta Devine could really act -- I've only ever seen her in awful, awful comedies -- but I loved her here.)
Now the question is: Will the audiences who've flocked to Perry's insulting shows about a fake black woman turn out to see a downer of a movie about real black women?