For Colored Girls

For some people, learning that Tyler Perry was going to write and direct the movie version of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” must have been like finding out Garry Marshall was going to film “Death of a Salesman.” Ntozake Shange’s 1975 theatrical piece was an acclaimed work of prose poetry that examined what it means to be a black woman. Tyler Perry makes hammy melodramas that turn the African-American experience into cliches and platitudes. Finesse would be required to convert the abstract “For Colored Girls” into something cinematic. There was some fear that Tyler Perry would … you know … Tyler Perry it up.

I take no pleasure in reporting that those fears were justified. Tyler Perry has Tyler Perried the hell out of this thing. Shange’s collection of poetic monologues chronicles all manner of traumas, from everyday things like broken relationships and infidelities to rape, domestic violence, and abortion. On the stage or the page, these things are recounted with mournful beauty. The movie, going by the shorter (but still awkward) title “For Colored Girls,” must flesh out the ideas into actual scenes — supply the characters who were previously only mentioned, give those characters dialogue, make the abstract concrete — and in the process cheapens them. Now it’s just a junky soap opera.

Or at least that’s the effect of Perry’s touch. To be fair, even a really talented writer and director might have found it impossible to make this material work on the big screen. But Perry doesn’t do himself any favors by amping up the melodrama and hysterics. For example, an incredibly shocking event that comes at the very end of the play — and even then is only described as having already happened, not depicted before our eyes — has been moved to the middle of the movie and is acted out in detail, for maximum effect. What was a harrowing tragedy in the play is a manipulative gimmick in the movie.

Perry’s version is set largely in a rundown Harlem apartment building. In one unit is Tangie (Thandie Newton), a bartender and freelance whore whose little sister, Nyla (Tessa Thompson), is starting to follow in her wanton footsteps. Across the hall lives Crystal (Kimberly Elise), whose alcoholic veteran boyfriend, Beau (Michael Ealy), beats on her and their two young children. Kelly (Kerry Washington) is a social worker who checks on Crystal’s kids. Crystal works as an assistant for Jo (Janet Jackson), a mega-rich fashion-magazine editor with nothing but disdain for poor people. Juanita (Loretta Devine) is a nurse who runs a non-profit organization helping inner-city women. Tangie and Nyla’s mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), is a hellfire-and-brimstone religious fanatic. Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) teaches dance to Nyla and other teenage girls. Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) manages the apartment building and tries to keep an eye on her tenants.

These characters cross each other’s paths in that “Crash,” rich-tapestry-of-life sort of way. While it’s occasionally contrived, it’s not a bad device for turning the unnamed archetypes of the play into actual characters. You can still have them give their monologues, even if parts of those speeches are now delivered to other characters while having dinner or walking down the street rather than simply addressed to the audience.

In fact, the film works rather well when the actresses are sticking to Shange’s original text. It doesn’t sound like dialogue; it sounds like highly theatrical and evocative poetry. The language sizzles with raw emotion and pain. Depending on the caliber of the performance — and they range from the fiery Loretta Devine to the dull Janet Jackson — some of these moments are genuinely effective.

The problem, to put it bluntly, is everything else. The mortar that Perry has used to assemble the bricks of Shange’s play is the cheapest, crappiest material available. The plot points that fill in the details are standard Lifetime Movie Channel fare: secretly gay husbands, nice guys who turn out to be rapists, infertility caused by STDs, back-alley abortions administered by a chain-smoking crone who sterilizes her instruments in bourbon, etc. Sometimes this banality can be saved by the matriarchal strength of Phylicia Rashad, or by Kimberly Elise’s unadorned sincerity. Usually, though, it’s just laughably trite. And I do mean laughably. When a rape victim sees her attacker dead in a morgue and her response is to slap his dead face as if challenging him to a duel, what reaction other than laughter can we possibly be expected to have?

Underneath Tyler Perry’s incompetence, buried but still visible, are the ideas that have made so many women respond so strongly to this play for 35 years. The idea that to love a man, especially sexually, means giving up part of yourself, relinquishing some of your power. The idea that to be a woman is difficult enough without having to contend with other women tearing you apart. But Perry’s version winds up emphasizing the same theme as all of his other films: men are dangerous and troublesome, and women would do well to steer clear of them. I don’t think that’s what Ntozake Shange intended for us to get out of her work — but I’d guess there’s a lot of stuff in this corpse-slapping, date-raping, incest-implying, child-defenestrating debacle that Ntozake Shange didn’t intend.

C- (2 hrs., 14 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some violence including a rape, partial nudity, intense themes.)