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Sunday, May 15, 2011

For Colored Girls

Here's a review that I wrote for Artslink. I have, incidentally, learned subsequent to writing this review that the play on which it is based actually came out in the 70s so it's obviously not technically a followup - spiritual or otherwise - to Angels in America. I still think the comparison stands, though. And I still think For Colored Girls sucks. 

From Artslink (Originally posted 13 May 2011)  

A few years ago, HBO released a rather excellent TV miniseries called Angels In America that, though far from perfect, absolutely deserved all the praise and high profile awards that it received. What we have here in For Colored Girls – or to call it by its ridiculous full title: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf – is a spiritual sequel to Angels In America.

The two simply have far too much in common to consider it anything else. Both are based on successful stage plays; both take a look at a specific issue and how it affects a specific community of people; both are clearly melodramatic; both use hyper-normal storytelling aspects to explore their issues and both deal with a huge cast of various personalities whose lives invariably intersect. They even have very similarly theatrical endings of having the main characters directly addressing the audience. Aside for specific details, the only really big difference between the two is that while Angels In America was very, very good despite its flaws, For Colored Girls is awful despite its noble intentions.

Angels In America was a powerful exploration of the rise of aids in the gay community in the early 1990s and made full use of both its truly magnificent cast of actors (Seriously: Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Mary Louise Parker, Justin Kirk, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell, Patrick Wilson – could it get any better?) and its ambitious use of religious imagery and themes. It also managed to keep proceedings intimate as it fully developed each of its many characters – some of which were played by the same actors – even as its ambitions took it from the Burroughs of New York City to Heaven itself. It wasn't all great – it was at times too ambitious and it did at times have trouble escaping its theatrical roots but, quite unlike For Colored Girls, it hit far, far more often than it missed.

And thus to the matter at hand. I certainly admire Tyler Perry for attempting a project that is as challenging as Ntozake Shange's play and it feels churlish to criticize a film that is this well-intentioned. And yet, here we are. It does have a few things very much in its favour beyond having its heart in the right place. The cast, a veritable Who's Who of Hollywood's African-American (or “Black-American” or whatever the latest politically correct term actually is) actresses is variable but there are some stand-out performances to be found. Perry is also able to juggle the various storylines with a certain amount of aplomb. The problem is that all the film's strengths get lost in the portentous, humourless, ill-judged, sometimes over-acted muck.

Like Angels In America, For Colored Girls is a melodrama with a gimmick at its centre. What set Angels In America apart though was that it understood how melodramatic it was and, as such, was sure to inject some very welcome and often very black humour into the mix. And its “gimmick” of adding angels, heavenly visits and ghostly visions allowed even its most bombastic, pretentious and pompous moments to be leavened by the context in which they were set.

Sadly, none of this is true of For Colored Girls. It simply plays its melodrama far too straight. Not only is it entirely devoid of humour, its increasingly hysterical progression of tragic moments and violent conflicts is hard to stomach and comes across as faintly ridiculous. Worse, the great “gimmick” that is at the centre of the action is that at various points in the film each of the lead characters break out into these unbearably long and portentous poems that are obviously supposed to serve as monologues that sum up what the character has gone through but instead had me desperately wishing I had something hard and heavy on hand to hurl at the screen and put me and the film out of our collective miseries. Give me Emma Thompson as a screamingly mad angel and Jeffrey Wright as a scene-stealing flamboyant drag queen over earnestly boring poetry recitals any day of the week.

Then, of course, there is the “colored” part of the title, which is, I believe, supposed to refer both to the different personalities of the women and to their race but the former was too vague for its own good, while the whole race things seemed irrelevant. This is a film about women and the abuse they suffer at the hands of their men, themselves and the world at large and I was genuinely taken aback when the one woman's (groan) monologue centred around the fact that she was a black woman. It just seemed so ancillary to the point of the rest of the film.

So, yes, it’s easy to appreciate and admire what For Colored Girls was trying to achieve but there really is no getting past it: it's a heavy-handed, manipulative, humourless, self-indulgent mess that was already done better – in every single way – by a 2003 HBO miniseries. That that HBO miniseries felt shorter with its 6-hour long running time really kind of says it all.

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