You can tell that For Colored Girls is Tyler Perry’s bid for respectability by the absence of the filmmaker’s signature appearance in drag as sassy grandma Madea; the lack of a possessive vanity credit in front of the title; and the existence of this advance review, which Perry has denied critics for virtually all of his past movies. Based on the 1975 Ntozake Shange play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Perry’s movie announces itself from its first frame as Serious Business and doesn’t let up on the grim solemnity even as it becomes increasingly hilarious in its overwrought melodrama. The more Perry tries to be profound and meaningful, the more absurd the movie becomes.
Part of the problem is that Shange’s play isn’t a traditional narrative with recognizable characters: It’s a series of poetic monologues delivered by unnamed female archetypes (each designated only by a color). So Perry is forced to create a story around it, and what he puts together is a typical Perry collection of wronged women trapped in cycles of victimhood. He clearly values Shange’s words, however, so every few minutes the characters essentially stop what they’re doing to deliver one of the play’s monologues. The shift is painfully awkward, as the words change from Perry’s bland psychobabble to florid poetry, and the actress’s cadence moves from flat to mellifluous. It’s as if Perry has made a musical with poems instead of songs, only the passages are presented as part of the regular interactions between characters. The transitions get more and more forced as the movie goes on, and the end result is that Shange’s words are drained of almost all their impact.
The action around them is even worse; Perry tortures his characters with escalating horrors and portrays the men in their lives as rapists, adulterers, abusers and closeted homosexuals (all of which are pitched at about the same level of awfulness). There are talented actresses here, struggling to make the material work, but they’re drowned by unpleasant moralizing and histrionic direction. Perry has taken a groundbreaking, radical work of theater and turned it into just another cardboard Tyler Perry movie.