'For Colored Girls' (R)

There are so many gifted African-American actresses packed into For Colored Girls, and the movie’s source material is so rich with potential (Ntozake Shange’s Obie-winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf), that the film’s utter failure as a piece of engaging, vibrant drama feels especially disappointing.

Writer-director Tyler Perry, setting aside all the comedic and satirical slants of his previous works (Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Why Did I Get Married?) to opt for morose drama, has respectfully kept large chunks of Shange’s ”choreopoem” intact, giving each of his seven female protagonists lengthy monologues about their plights. Among them: A woman married to an abusive alcoholic husband; a social worker who longs to have children but was left barren by an STD, and a party girl who sleeps with a different guy each night to overcome the memory of her father’s abuse.

Perry has built a lucrative and beloved niche from films aimed specifically at black women, but none of those pictures bore the painfully theatrical artifice of For Colored Girls, which tries to insert Shange’s lyrical poetry into a realistic Harlem tenement where most of the characters live. Of the large cast, Janet Jackson is a standout as a high-powered magazine editor whose husband is leading a double life, and Thandie Newton cuts a tragic figure for using sex to quell her inner demons.

But with such a large cast, none of the actors is able to turn her character into a fully realized person. The women are just symbols of pain. Whoopi Goldberg’s portrayal of a religious fanatic oblivious to the world around her, or Phylicia Rashad as the tenement’s manager (and the film’s Greek chorus), are even shakier performances … showy star turns that detract from the film.

For Colored Girls is so relentlessly focused on the cruel and evil things men do to women that the movie never feels anchored to any sort of reality: It’s a work of relentless, suffocating melodrama. What might have worked on the stage as transcendent and moving feels plodding and repetitive onscreen – an example of a filmmaker’s tackling tricky, complex material that is way over his head.

Cast: Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg.

Writer-director: Tyler Perry. Based on the play by Ntozake Shange.

Producers: Paul Hall, Roger M. Bobb.

A Lionsgate Films release. Running time: 130 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, rape, strong adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 5 at area theaters.


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