For Colored Girls (Blu-ray)
As someone old enough to remember when “independent” simply meant a movie made outside the studio system, a movie that could be about literally anything, I feel like I have to give Tyler Perry credit where credit is due: in a shaky economic climate and an industry undergoing a painful transition to a new business model, conditions that have made it difficult for even established filmmakers to get their projects made, Perry has carved himself a niche almost completely outside of Hollywood, producing and distributing reliable moneymakers for the middle-class black Americans who are often ignored by mainstream releases. He is living the dream of truly independent film. It’s just a shame that, so far, his movies have not been that good.
FOR COLORED GIRLS is, in many ways, a brave and sincere effort. As director and screenwriter, Perry has taken black feminist poet Ntozake Shange’s award-winning 1976 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf – a series of choreographed poems about the lives of black girls and women, recited on stage by actresses referred to only as The Woman in Red, The Woman in Blue, et cetera – and has literalized the stories of the poems, creating a mosaic about nine separate women in modern New York, all in different stages of life, and all dealing with their own personal crises.
Tangie (Thandie Newton) is a hardened, promiscuous bartender whose life revolves around a nonstop stream of encounters with anonymous strangers, earning her the ire of her apartment neighbors and the judgment of her mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), who regularly comes up to the apartment to beg Tangie for money to give to a religious cult she has fallen in with. Meanwhile, Tangie’s younger sister Nyla (Tessa Thompson) is a skilled dancer whose goal of earning a scholarship is endangered by an unwanted pregnancy. The woman across the hall from Tangie, Crystal (Kimberly Elise), struggles to cope with an alcoholic Iraq vet husband who has hurt her and their children while at the same time trying to keep her personal turmoil from affecting her job at an Ebony-like fashion magazine run by the cruel, imperious editor Joanna (Janet Jackson) – who in turn is watching her marriage fall apart as her husband begins to realize he is gay.
And so on, and so forth. This multi-layered, cross-cutting story about a group of interrelated strangers is a tried-and-true approach that has given us great films like NASHVILLE, MAGNOLIA and DO THE RIGHT THING – films that FOR COLORED GIRLS clearly has on its mind – but where it falls down is in the execution. There are some spectacular individual scenes and performances – such as a great bit where Janet Jackson’s cold, friendless magazine executive is given a savage dressing-down by a community activist she has turned down for money, or a gutwrenching scene of child abuse – but too often the film veers into unintentional comedy as, on several occasions, the scene pauses so the actresses can stare straight ahead and recite Shange’s poetry word-for-word, while bystanders look on and nod approvingly. It’s obviously supposed to work like the songs in a musical, and the poetry is good poetry, but it’s jarring in the context of a film; I ended up feeling more uncomfortable and embarrassed for the actresses than connected with the plight of their characters.
As a filmmaker, I think Perry has potential; he’s competent at staging scenes and using lighting and color to good effect; run-down Harlem brownstones have rarely looked this good. He avoids the cramped feeling of many plays-turned-films, finding ways to keep the characters moving and individual scenes from dragging on too long. The problems with this movie lie in the script – not just with the bizarre decision to awkwardly insert large swaths of spoken-word poetry, but in the bland dialogue and predictable melodrama. When we see an eighteen-year-old girl throwing up in a trash can at her dance practice, for instance, or when we see a hulking Vietnam vet drinking vodka in front of his two small children, we can accurately guess every single thing that happens to those people from then on out. FOR COLORED GIRLS is an ambitious and well-meaning movie, but paying audiences deserve more than just good intentions.
Video: Appropriately enough for a movie with this title, FOR COLORED GIRLS is lushly-filmed and its vibrant hues are well-represented in the 1080p 1.78:1 Blu-Ray transfer. Whatever its other issues, this is a good-looking movie and it looks fantastic on Blu.
Audio: The 7.1 DTS-HD sound mix is adequate but this is a movie that doesn’t employ much of the aural spectrum; while the original poems were set to a dance beat, FOR COLORED GIRLS is mostly talk, with a few popular songs punctuating key scenes. Bottom line, you’re not going to miss out on anything if you watch this on a laptop or download the included digital copy to your portable media player.
“Span of the Rainbow” Original Interactive Documentary – Eighteen separate segments (totaling about forty minutes) which can be viewed on their own or interspersed with the actual movie, highlighting the history of the play on and off Broadway and its journey to a theatrical feature.
Prism of Poems – A collection of the various poetry scenes from the movie and comparisons to the original text.
Transformation: Movie Magic – This is the de rigueur making-of puff piece, about fourteen minutes in length, with some interesting discussion of makeup and hairstyles padded out with extensive clips from the film.
Living Portraits – A feature originally seen on the film’s website, with artsy photographs of the nine lead characters linked to short audio clips of crucial scenes.
Music For Colored Girls – A brief look at the film’s soundtrack, which includes songs by classic luminaries like Nina Simone and Gladys Knight as well as fresh faces like Janelle Monae.