Converting Ntozake Shange's award-winning For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf from stage to screen is clearly not a task for the faint of heart: It's a big, modernist painting, abstract and minimalist — a "choreopoem"— told in verse and movement, with anonymous characters identified only by the color of their dresses. Colored girls across the generations have fervently embraced its tales of love lost and gained and lost again, memorizing lines about Toussaint Louverture, sorry sorrys and mute, cute-colored Puerto Ricans.
Outsized expectations come with this adaptation.
But no one has ever accused Tyler Perry of being fainthearted, and he ever so bravely barrels through his cinematic version of the classic, shortening the title, imposing narrative structure where there was none, doing away with much of the verse and otherwise imprinting it with that distinctive Perry-esque imprimatur. Call it Diary of a Mad Colored Girl.
And it doesn't work. At all. It's an exceedingly hard slog, 2 hours and 14 minutes of overwrought melodrama, bleaker than bleak, and unleavened by humor or wit. Shange's play, made up of 20 poems, certainly dragged its audience through a tsunami of emotion, with its tales of back-alley abortions, double-crossing lovers and baby-killing fathers. (And in fact, when it debuted on Broadway in 1976, some saw it as an assault on black men; many walked out.)
But the original For Colored Girls tempered the misery with joy, with tales of virginity happily lost in the back seat of a car and the thrills of an all-night salsa party in the Bronx. It ends in a jubilant manifesto, with the ladies in red, blue, purple, yellow, brown, green and orange dancing about the stage.
But there's little joy to be found in Perry's rendition. He has chosen to name each of the characters, placing them all within the vicinity of a drab Harlem walk-up. Some of them live there; some don't. They're all an unhappy lot, either unhappily attached or unhappily unattached. (Save for Kerry Washington's Kelly, who is married to an apparent saint, played by Hill Harper. But that doesn't seem to alleviate her agony.)
It opens with a series of voice-overs, with the lines of a poem serving as the each woman's interior monologue, until their voices layer over one another in a crescendo of despair. It's an interesting approach, one that Perry falls back on several times throughout the movie.
But Perry isn't content to let Shange's words do the talking. Instead he insists on inserting his trademark Perry-isms into the action, discarding Shange's lush language for clunky dialogue, clichéd characters and self-help platitudes.
There's Janet Jackson playing the bitchy magazine editor — The Devil Wears Prada dipped in caramel. (What is it with Perry and black professional women? They're always cast as bitter bitches who must be punished.) Whoopi Goldberg is the resident crazy cult lady proselytizing on street corners, while Thandie Newton is the crazy slut who really just wants to be loved, Macy Gray is the crazy abortionist with bad teeth and Kimberly Elise is shacked up with the crazy war vet.
"Crazy" is the operative word here. It's a soap opera interspersed with awkward bursts of poetry. And Shange's more playful poems — Toussaint, for example — are dramatically truncated, served up as throwaway bits of dialogue. The result is an unrelenting trek through the 12 steps, with melodramatic climax piled on top of melodramatic climax, with lots of screaming and crashing about thrown in for effect.
It is, in a word, awful.
Which is such a shame. Perry has assembled a wonderful cast here; he's certainly got an eye for talent, casting the fabulous Phylicia Rashad, Goldberg, Newton, Washington and Anika Noni Rose. But for the most part, he does them no favors here, pushing them into over-the-top performances.
Rashad and Rose acquit themselves admirably with what they're given, but Jackson recites her lines in a zombie monotone, sounding for all the world like her most famous brother. Newton, normally an actress of nuance and range, shrieks her way through the movie. The men cast here — a departure from the original — fare no better; they're mere cardboard cutouts.
Much has been made of Perry's worthiness — or unworthiness — to take on Shange's opus. I've had my own opinions on the matter. But that is neither here nor there; each work of art deserves to be judged on its own merits. And with For Colored Girls, Perry is clearly aiming for art. Unfortunately, in his hands, For Colored Girls amounts to little more than a cartoon.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.