Bright Lights Film Journal

For Colored Girls: An Experiment in Melodrama

Always eager to present serious issues, Tyler Perry found a batch in Ntozake Shange’s play For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Before entering filmmaking, Perry triumphed in the theater, where he has written, directed, and frequently starred in a number of popular melodramas, often musical and farcical. This blend of styles, which many have connected to the black tradition of the “Chitlin Circuit,” makes for distinct entertainment, the low humor jibing with the inspirational moments and musical numbers. (These filmed plays are widely available DVD.)

By moving to film, Perry brought his stage properties to the new medium. The variety-show nature of his plays allowed for the sundry elements, but in a filmed narrative they struggle to unify. Earnest struggles in personal relationships abut to Perry donning drag, as Medea, a personification he claims isn’t an exaggeration, though the camera says different when she acts opposite everyday folk. The distance from actors to audience that’s inherent to a stage performance, with its focus on the voice and sound over visuals, makes the over-the-top jam well with the heavier issues. The characters work as cut-outs better in Perry’s stage style than on film. In the latter form, Perry kept the issues but couldn’t keep the style. He’s been more effective writing directly for the screen, as his Why Did I Get Married? series is often perceptive, if heavy-handed.

He wants traction but is committed to using the melodramatic. Surprisingly, his approach works in revising Shange’s poem-performance. Perry maintains the original work’s power while refashioning it as a contemporary melodrama.

This curious stage play was also unique in its creation. The author’s premiere drama, it began as separate monologues performed together at venues in California. As it unified into a whole, the production eventually made it to New York, for a Broadway premiere. By featuring a cast of black women characters all named after different colors, the play reflects the symbolic stylistics of the medieval morality play, with its characters reflecting universal toils and triumphs, though Shange adds specific notes. By taking her work on a long journey to creation and revision, Shange fashioned a work of communal folk art, as were the community-based dramas in medieval times (or earlier) to the present, in various cultures. Hers is a work of unique synthesis and triumphant effect.

The play’s poster appears in the home of the title character’s teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) in Precious, a film to which Perry came on as an executive producer, post-production. This was likely one of many signals that Perry has spoken of, which led him to take on For Colored Girls (producers likely feared that using the full play’s title would spell suicide for ticket sales). Choosing not to deny the poetic structure of the play’s language, Perry includes verse moments from Shange as interludes in his realistic dialog: the poetics enter with ease, thanks to his fine ensemble. Perry has a multi-narrative piece on his hands, nothing new to the current cinema, save that here the disturbing content of each tale has potential to overburden the viewer. Be warned that the film concerns the harshest obstacles that, regretfully, are a reality to many women. Perry’s been guilty of lacking a slight of hand (see the revenge scenes in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, starring Kimberly Elise, who also turns in a compelling role here as the mother to the children of an abusive Iraq War vet). Yet amazingly, he pulls off disturbing moments by finding conviction and vulnerability in his performers. The only scene faltering is the ordeal of Elise’s character, and we should note that even the source material doesn’t dramatise this harrowing moment: it’s described by a character, from memory.

The harshness mixes in with a surprising amount of humor. Perry’s players, though they hurt, realize they’re caught in the absurdity of life, and at times find relief for themselves and those of us looking on. For Colored Girls works because Perry can lighten the heaviest, though the issues remain as we exit.

Tyler Perry earns a group hug at the close of For Colored Girls.