Review in a Hurry: A veritable who's-who of A-list African-American actresses (Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg) populates For Colored Girls, and their performances keep this highly theatrical script from suffocating the big screen.
The Bigger Picture: Playwright Ntozake Shange got audiences to sit up and listen to the female black perspective with her 1974 play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. More of a tone poem layered with dance and music, it's been boiled down to film form by director Tyler Perry and a hall-of-fame cast.
Some of the situations are extremely intense—rape, murder, disease—but the point Shange was making at the time was revolutionary: Female victimhood should no longer be a dirty secret. Her poetry allowed victims of all sorts to release their hurt and, ultimately, find power in this freedom.
Fast-forward to 2010, and this subject matter, executed so broadly—for a while Perry rarely moves the camera, there is little subtlety to the script—makes the movie one big public service announcement. Yet, thanks to the skillful acting, it works.
Perry tells the tale through several disparate women, all crisscrossing paths from one scene to the next, brought together by the common experience of being a woman, being black and trying to be happy. Crystal (Kimberly Elise) is the obedient assistant of ice-cold magazine editor Jo (Jackson); she lives in the same apartment building as lost soul Tangie (Thandie Newton), whose sister Nyla (Tessa Thompson) is struggling with a secret that could ruin her future...and so on. The women's experiences seamlessly intertwine as the plot thickens.
The wisdom of the script (adapted for the screen by Perry) is in its accessibility. Shange's characters represent a cross section of class and culture, but they all have the same challenges: negotiating the treacherous landscape of protecting and developing their power and sexuality, surmounting obstacles both everyday and extraordinary.
Perry rarely lets his characters sink to pity, letting the steely strength of his players shine in long, steady close-ups. Seldom do actresses of this caliber get this kind of material; standouts include Elise as a suffering young mother and Newton as a wild child learning to find her center. Phylicia Rashad has a quieter but powerful role as the den mother figure and becomes the heart of the movie.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Perry kept some of the poetic cadence of the play, each character lapsing into at least one long monologue. This is a tough sell, constantly slowing the film down with a lack of action while the players spout forth with soul-baring speeches that might leave some audience members glancing at their watches.