By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic
It’s like watching 10,000 Oprah Winfrey shows squeezed into 134 minutes – and no one gets a free car!
Some works of art should just be left alone. Would you paint a wider smile on the Mona Lisa? Would you add a break dancing routine to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations? Is there really a need to write another chapter for Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon?
Writer/director/producer Tyler Perry has taken on the impossible task of bringing Ntozake Shange’s Tony Award-winning, eloquent, 1974, classic, feminist choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough” to the silver screen. If he had created a word-for-word teleplay, perhaps Shange’s genius would have remained in tact. He didn’t, he updated her narratives (adding the when-in-doubt, go-to villains – down-low brothers) and unwisely left some in the past (back alley abortions), turning his latest opus into over-the-top melodrama.
However, this tedious, near excruciating, over-ambitious work has two savings graces. Strong actresses give some of their best performances and above par production elements: music (Aaron Zigman and Joel C. High), production design (Ina Mayhew) and cinematography (Alexander Gruszynski). But then there’s the rest.
Jo (Janet Jackson) runs a fashion magazine and if the Devil Wore Prada, she has a closet full. It’s no wonder her husband Carl (Omari Hardwick) is playing the field. She’s treats her assistant Crystal (Kimberly Elise) cruelly. Crystal lives with her two little children fathered by her short-fused boyfriend Beau Willie (Michael Ealy), an alcoholic, mentally ill Army vet suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Beau frequently cracks Crystal upside her head. Why does she stay?
When Beau smacks Crystal around, the sounds of her shrieks penetrate the walls of her Harlem tenement apartment, prompting her lonely, nosy, 60ish building manager Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) to call the Child Welfare Agency. But these days, social workers like Kelly (Kerry Washington) seem too caught up in their own personal strife to care about the poor wretches in their custody. Tangie (Thandie Newton) lives next to Gilda and hates her because that old busybody keeps track of how many men have parked their shoes under Tangie’s bed (lots).
Tangie blames her screwed-up life on her domineering and over-religious mother Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), who has been known to psychologically abuse her youngest daughter Nyla (Tessa Thompson). Nyla seeks refuge in the dance studio of Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose). Juanita (Loretta Devine), a nurse who can’t keep track of her ever-missing boyfriend Frank (Richard Lawson), witnesses the misery.
Nine women. Nine storylines. Spousal abuse. Rape. Manslaughter. Abortion. Promiscuity. Fist fights. Infidelity. Sterility. Abandonment. Tyler Perry’s script pours so much conflict into this moaning, groaning, pity-party drama that it becomes implausible and ripe for satire. If these were the good old days, In Living Color would parody the film with Keenan Wayans and Jamie Foxx donning wigs and brassieres to skewer the characters’ over-wrought pathos.
If you listen carefully, you can differentiate between Shange’s poignant dialogue and Perry’s. “Somebody almost walked away with my stuff,” says Juanita metaphorically — that’s classic Shange. “I know I have issues with trust,” pines Jo, with all the conviction of a Beverly Hills housewife – that’s new age psychobabble.
Though the script is misguided, Perry’s direction is refreshingly lucid and intelligent. Scenes (there are way too many) flow into each other like people walking into a subway turnstile where they gather for a quick moment then disperse, then gather again. He’s quite apt at showcasing the talent of his impressive cast. He starts the film with colorful titles backdropped against a swath of beguiling colors, then segues into a studio where a dancer moves lyrically. Moments like these show Perry’s direction is becoming more refined.
Kudos to Loretta Devine, Phylicia Rashad, Kimberly Elise and Anika Noni Rose for taking the material and giving a fascinating cadence to the words and deep emotion to the characters. Janet Jackson’s interpretation of an evil executive is two-dimensional at best. She was better in Why Did I Get Married. Thandie Newton, one of the best and most beautiful actresses working in film today, was miscast. She can’t feign a whore. Kerry Washington’s interpretation of Kelly is lifeless. Whoopi Goldberg’s performance of a zealot who has led her children astray is never convincing.
Someday, some wise filmmaker or screenwriter will figure out a way to make a touching, revealing and compelling film about African American women that doesn’t castigate, dehumanize or demonize black men. Carl is that obligatory, clichÈd down-low dude, the phantom “curse” of the black community. Frank is a feeble wanderer. Beau beats his girlfriend like he’s practicing for an Ultimate Fighting Championship. Other male characters are whoremongers, rapists or worse. There’s one good guy, he’s a cop and that’s it. The female characters vent and blame nearly all their problems on men. You’re almost surprised that they don’t make men take the rap for menopause, PMS and split ends.
Ntozake Shange’s original play was inspiring and empowering. It gave women strength and hope. 95% of this film is just depressing. Go back and read the play. Go see the theater piece. Or grab a group of friends and have a reading of the play yourself if you want to revisit its themes and feel the force of Shange’s brilliant writing and dynamic characters. All that gets lost in this misguided, poorly written but well-intended, well-acted and well-produced screen adaptation.
To date, Tyler Perry’s most nuanced, thoughtful and entertaining film is Why Did I Get Married. Maybe someday he will top that one.