"For Colored Girls" is not easy. Its poetry is hot and searing, its story an unbroken current of rage and pain and sex and abuse and solidarity and self and empowerment. Nine women — in screams, whispers and weeping — demand that you listen, that you don't look away, that you deal with the discomfort as they did.
It is a film destined to polarize. Many will hate it. Hopefully more will love it, or at least allow room for it, for its raw brutality, its extremes, its difficult truths.
Filmmaker Tyler Perry takes us into this heart of darkness with his remarkable adaptation of Ntozake Shange's series of poems, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," first published in 1975. Designed for the stage, it was a sort of dance of life, a feminist and racial polemic with the women — draped in blue, yellow, red, brown, green, purple or orange — moving across the stage, each pausing to tell her story, moving on. It made its way from San Francisco to Broadway to much acclaim, but confounded those who thought about it as a movie.
Perry has found the answer. With a surgical precision, the writer-director cut it apart and reassembled it, using various pieces to create characters and storylines, keeping much of the poetry, writing the connective tissue himself so that it finds a new life, a somewhat different life on screen.
A high-profile ensemble of black actresses — Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Tessa Thompson, Kerry Washington, Whoopi Goldberg and Macy Gray — shrug themselves into these lives. The men — Michael Ealy, Omari Hardwick, Hill Harper, Khalil Kain, Richard Lawson — are varying degrees of monstrous (with the exception of Harper's character), and the film is not all that concerned with understanding them deeply or forgiving them, whatever their scars.
"For Colored Girls" is the most mature work yet for Perry, whose emotional nakedness is as visible in this piece as that of his cast. He coaxes standout performances from Elise ("Beloved," "Diary of a Mad Black Woman") as Crystal, an abused wife and mother facing crushing loss; Thompson ("When a Stranger Calls") as Nyla, a teenager discovering sex and paying for it with pregnancy; Rose ("Dreamgirls") as Yasmine, a single woman trying to survive a rape; and veteran stage and screen actress Devine ("Waiting to Exhale" "The Preacher's Wife"), uncomfortable with middle age, brilliant in lacing her pain at betrayal with irony, bringing the production its few light notes.
There is no sign of Madea, the towering African American grandmother that Perry has turned into an icon, and an empire, with her sharp tongue lashed around laughter, spitting out judgment on gales of whoops and hollers in countless productions for stage and film for more than a decade. He is helped in setting the tone with beautiful cinematography from Alexander Gruszynski, who has been bringing an increasing polish to Perry's films since they began collaborating on 2009's "Madea Goes to Jail" and especially later that year with "I Can Do Bad All by Myself."
The look of the film reflects the drama of the piece through simplicity and space — ghetto grime and ground-down women shot as portraiture. Earthy tones, warm until they go into Jackson's world where her Jo, a rich magazine editor, is all fire and ice in red and white. Though not much is made of the specifics, most of the story unfolds in a six-block area of Harlem pulled from one of the 20 poems that make up Shange's original work, which begins, "I usedta live in the world/then I moved to HARLEM/& my universe is now six blocks…"
As stark as the words are, the visuals underscore just how much of a climb we have ahead of us. One of the early scenes unfolds in the interior of the apartment house where many of the women live — a walkup with a staircase that seems to wind up endlessly.
The narrative begins with the women's voices making a choral round of the first poem, "dark phases." For the rest of the film, Perry manages a near seamless integration of poetry and traditional dialogue that turns out to feel more natural than you might expect. Its themes are reflective of the dark reality for many — Yasmine explains that though she knew the man who raped her, "if you've been seen in public wit him/danced one dance … pressin charges will be as hard/as keepin yr legs closed/while five fools try to run a train on you…"
There are so many sharp edges to these characters and some cut the wrong way, or not at all. In a piece like this that is so operatic in nature, it's hard to hide the weak spots: Newton's Tangie swings too wildly; Goldberg's Alice, clad in white and rage, never finds traction; and Rashad, as the apartment manager Gilda, the central link between many of the characters, never quite connects, so it often feels as if she's walked onto the wrong stage.
Whatever stumbles there may be, they are offset by moments when "For Colored Girls" soars. One of the most powerful comes deep in the film when Jo (Jackson) and her husband Carl (Hardwick) have taken their broken marriage to an opera. As the concert hall fills up with the rich sounds of "La Donna in Viola," an aria written by the film's composer Aaron Zigman for the scene and performed by opera singer Karen Slack and soul singer Andrea Jones-Sojola, the camera cuts between images of the women, individuals, alone.
But the ultimate strength of the piece, that Shange first envisioned and Perry understands, is found whenever the women come together, never more movingly than in the final scene. It is a moment stripped down to its essence, understated, emotional and one the director handles with exquisite care. It is not easy. It is unforgettable.