Tyler Perry lost a lot in translation

For Colored Girls boils down to a marriage of two very different traditions: the downtown feminism of Ntozage Shange's influential 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf and the Chitlin'-Circuit box-office bait of Tyler Perry, the playwright, movie director, and cross-dressing actor whose best-known role is Madea, a saucy, amply padded matriarch.

Shange's play features a blend of poetry, music, and drama performed by seven women identified only by the colors they wear (Lady in Red, Lady in Blue, etc.). Through poetic monologues, they explore issues like domestic abuse, love, rape, abortion, spirituality, and black revolutionary history. No wonder there was widespread panic when Perry said he was going to direct a movie version. After all, how could a man often accused of fueling racial stereotypes handle such a serious work? And would Madea be in it?

Thankfully, she isn't. But Perry's adaptation is still uneven. Colored Girls packs plenty of star wattage, with a cast that includes Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, and Phylicia Rashad. The characters are given names, and the abstract structure takes on a concrete narrative here, shifting the focus from sisterhood to soap opera.

It also introduces men to the scenario, in ways that aren't too flattering. Perry's roundelay of stories follows an increasingly familiar formula of demonizing black men onscreen. If the abusive males in The Color Purple and the overrated Precious weren't repellent enough, consider the depraved lineup in For Colored Girls: philanderers, abusers, rapists, husbands who give their wives HIV, fathers who murder their children. While the same stories were told retrospectively by the women in the play, acting them out literally on the screen makes them seem more vulgar than poetic.

The movie often wallows in misery — of the male-generated variety, of course — lingering on a brutal rape and the dangling of two children from a fifth-floor window by their demented father. Though beautifully acted and photographed, For Colored Girls is hampered by the fact that what was richly moving in the oral-storytelling tradition becomes over-the-top melodrama in Perry's hands.

Where the movie does succeed is in preserving the music of Shange's poetry, weaving her monologues skillfully into the narrative and eliciting stirring recitations by the actresses. Rashad, as manager of the tenement where several of the women live, delivers a particularly haunting and quietly melodious reading.

Still, for every savory subtlety, there's some regrettable burlesque, most notably from Whoopi Goldberg. The movie soars only when Shange's poetry is center stage, which makes you wonder why Perry felt the need to open it up so much for the big screen.

Send feedback to film@clevescene.com.


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