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Knight at the Movies: For Colored Girls; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2010-11-03

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It's not enough, apparently, that writer-director-producer-star Tyler Perry can claim the title of the most financially successful African-American filmmaker in movie history. After nine movies that the public has loved to the tune of half a billion at the box office, Perry now wants R-E-S-P-E-C-T from critics and more discerning cinephiles as well. His chosen vehicle to realize this dream is For Colored Girls, his own adaptation of the 35-year-old award-winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, by poet/playwright Ntozake Shange.

To say that Perry wrecks the delicacy and fire inherent in Shange's work is not quite accurate. The movie features the creme de la crème of African-American actresses, working individually and at times in ensemble to beautiful effect. The cast includes Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Anika Nonni Rose, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise and Macy Gray. ( One can imagine prominent Black actresses and icons not involved—Halle Berry, Mo'Nique, Jennifer Holiday and even Oprah and Maya Angelou—on the phone cursing out their agents for not getting them into the movie. )

But Perry gives with one hand and takes with the other—the thrill of seeing these actresses "do their stuff" is decimated and oftentimes trivialized by Perry's insistence on welding a plot and adding "contemporary" additions ( AIDS, men on the down low, etc. ) to Shange's lyrical, timeless monologues that focus on feminism; gender; and sexual and social equality. The play, a series of 20 poems enacted by a nameless cast of seven women identified only by color—Lady in Yellow, Lady in Purple, etc.—has no plot and is identified as a "choreopoem." Perry plops most of the women down in the same Harlem apartment building as bickering, inquisitive neighbors, with Jackson cast as a bitchy Devil Wears Prada-type fashion editor, Goldberg as the mother of Newton, the sexually free spirit who lives next door to Rashad, who's the building manager, etc. The main focus of Perry's story, not surprisingly, is that ole Devil called love—or the lack of it—and the lousy hand life ( and a series of no-good men ) keeps dealing out to these ladies.

The two elements—Perry's and Shange's—do not co-exist peacefully, and the divisions between them are patently obvious. Worse, the mixture of Shange's dramatic fervor with Perry's added plot and character details has the affect of grounding the movie just about every time it begins to soar. But the movie does call to attention Perry's strength in directing women—something further emphasized with this talented ensemble.

Perry's decision to reinterpret Shange's play into resembling something nearer to his proven formula isn't really surprising, given his history. He has never been shy about throwing a bit of everything into his plays and movies—usually broad comedy ( thanks to his drag character Madea, usually at the center of the action ) wrenching between the most melodramatic of situations enacted by a range of stereotypical characters. But as noted, audiences have not minded these jagged shifts in tone and those not familiar with Shange's play will likely be happy to see these women acting their heads off and the Secret Life of Bees-Waiting to Exhale united sisterhood rooftop finale. Gay men will also love the inclusion of something else usually found in Perry's movies: a host of hunky, nearly nude Black men used for objectification purposes.

Although I doubt that For Colored Girls is the movie that will elevate Perry into the critical winner's circle I don't expect him to give up on his goal anytime soon and suggest he next go full tilt with an adaptation of Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs' seminal 1989 documentary about the struggles of gay Black men. This would allow Perry to once again hitch up with a poetic and powerful critical darling and, at last, bring the studs front and center. Madea could make a cameo and perform a comic monologue. Audiences would no doubt love that.

Film notes:

—Halloween Hangover: Don't pack away all the Halloween movies just yet because Warner Archive has just released 1967's unsung classic Eye of the Devil on DVD, and this is a must-have. The movie, though uneven in tone, never lets go of its eerie feeling. Set in a crumbling French chateau and surrounding vineyard, the plot focuses on occult rituals and other strange goings-on. It stars Deborah Kerr, David Niven, David Hemmings and an exquisitely gorgeous Sharon Tate in her film debut ( whose entire vocal performance is lip-synched ) . The movie, from director J. Lee Thompson, is something of a cult curio and, in addition to the high-profile cast, offers sumptuous black-and-white cinematography by Ernest Haller and a one-of-a-kind, darkly beautiful score by Gary McFarland. See www.warnerarchive.com .

—On Thursday, Nov. 11 ( Veteran's Day ) , in commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, the DuSable Museum of African American History, 74 E. 65th Place, will present two screenings ( at 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. ) of the 2009 documentary Inside Buffalo. The film is a close examination of the heroic "Buffalo Soldiers"—members of the 92nd Division, the all-African-American combat unit that fought in Italy during WWII and battled racism within the Army at the same time. Director Fred Kudjo Kuwornu, an Italian filmmaker of African descent who worked as assistant director to Spike Lee on the latter's Miracle At St. Anna, will be present for a director's talk following both screenings. ( A panel discussion with Veterans of the African American Armed Forces follows the noon screening as well. ) A reception for the director will be held at 5 p.m. The noon screening is free and open to the public; the 6 p.m. screening is $10 ( $5 for museum members ) . See www.dusablemuseum.org .

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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