[Screen It]

(2010) (Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise) (R)

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Drama: The lives of various women intersect as they deal with various issues involving their experiences as black women in America.
Joanna (JANET JACKSON) is a demanding magazine publisher whose behavior not only emasculates her husband, Carl (OMAR HARDWICK), but also demeans her personal assistant, Crystal (KIMBERLY ELISE). Little does Joanna know, however, that Crystal's live-in, military veteran boyfriend, Beau Willie (MICHAEL EALY) -- who's the father to her two young kids -- routinely abuses her, having come back from the war not quite right, a problem exacerbated by his alcoholism.

Social worker Kelly (KERRY WASHINGTON) is aware of the problem but not the severity, although she's distracted by the fact that she can't bear any children for her cop husband, Donald (HILL HARPER). Someone who knows of the abuse is Crystal's apartment manager, Gilda (PHYLICIA RASHAD), but while she babysits their kids, she's often distracted by next-door neighbor Tangie (THANDIE NEWTON). That's not only because the bartender is often visited by her ultra religious mother, Alice (WHOOPI GOLDBERG), who's always asking for more money, but also due to the fact that Tangie entertains a different man in her place every night.

That's unlike her younger sister, Nyla (TESSA THOMPSON), who still lives with her mom and has only recently lost her virginity. She spends most of her time taking dance classes taught by Yasmine (ANIKA NONE ROSE) who's recently become the object of attention for Bill (KHALIL KAIN) who charms her into starting to date him.

Hospital nurse Juanita (LORETTA DIVINE), however, would probably encourage her to be cautious as she teaches classes about empowering women when it comes to dealing with men, even when she can't keep her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Frank (RICHARD LAWSON), from moving out and going back to another woman. As the women go about their lives, they must contend with the repercussions of their actions as well as their interaction with each other and the men in their lives.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Just as many readers aren't happy with how their beloved novels are turned into movies, the same can be said for plays that undergo the same transformational work. After all, while there have been successful adaptations, and the two storytelling forms share similar structures, there are glaring differences. For one, stage productions are designed to play to live audiences in something of an interactive relationship where the audience's energy (or lack thereof) can affect the performers and vice-versa, while no such two-way symbiotic experiences occur while watching a prerecorded movie.

Then there's the fact that those on the stage have to play bigger than life in order to convey emotions and such to those in the back rows or balconies who can't see up-close facial expressions, but the same isn't necessary in movies and feels unnatural when it does occurs (as happened in "The Producers"). And while movies can be fantastical in nature, for the most part they come off as "realistic" presentations (meaning you accept what you see as reality), while plays, with their limited physical dimensions, set pieces, props and such have to create an artificial reality that audiences accept as a symbolic stand-in for the real thing. Finally, there's the fact that some plays are created and performed in ways that just don't lend themselves to cinematic form (unless one is simply going to film and then show them "as is").

Accordingly, some stage plays simply aren't suited for the big (or small) screen, and the latest case in point is "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" that's arrived as the greatly modified and title-truncated movie, "For Colored Girls." In its original and subsequently restaged versions, Ntozake Shange's 1970s era, Tony Award winning work featured seven female characters, known only by various colorful names ("Lady in Yellow," etc.), who performed poetic soliloquies about the nature of their existence as black women.

Topics and themes regarding love, abandonment, abuse, rape, abortion and more filled their speeches and subsequently connected with and emotionally moved audiences. While dated looking back at it in hindsight, it was a powerful examination of the black female experience in that era.

In another misguided example of not leaving well enough alone, and featuring a filmmaker who's an ideal candidate considering the subject matter (and past experience in bringing plays to the screen) but also the worst possible choice in terms of past moviemaking problems and debacles, we now have this new movie version. And that writer/director would be none other than Tyler Perry, the African-American movie mogul who's made untold millions telling tales of African-American characters to predominantly African-American audiences.

There's certainly nothing wrong with connecting him to this work, at least in theory. But Perry is best known for his stereotypical, throwback, black woman alter-ego, Madea (who he plays in exaggerated drag) when not delivering melodramatic dramas that pretty much have covered the same material time and again. While he's progressed as a filmmaker from a technical standpoint, his writing is still mediocre at best and the soap opera theatrics of his scripts and the characters aren't much of a step above daytime network TV.

Thus, it would seem to be a case of the "best of times and the worst of times" as Perry obviously knows his audience and delivers what they (seemingly) want, but he's yet to prove he's a terribly imaginative or diverse writer and/or director capable of successfully adapting Shange's work to the screen. And the film itself speaks volumes for that just, an uneven work that unsuccessfully tries to marry the two storytelling mediums and eventually is pulled down and succumbs to the ever-increasing melodrama and soap opera trappings.

Obviously realizing the original play wouldn't work "as is" -- beyond simply filming the stage production -- Perry has opted to fashion a story connecting all of the characters for whom he's given real (rather than hue-based) names. As a general standpoint, that's a choice of necessity in order to create a "movie" movie experience for the audience. The first problem with that, however, is the aforementioned continuation of sub-standard writing, character development and covering the same themes he's now done ad nauseam.

The more glaring issue -- if one can see past the ever-increasing and deepening soap opera bubbles -- is the inclusion of parts of Shange's original soliloquies/monologues in their original -- and highly theatrical form. In short, while they might be moving and highly poetic as standalone pieces, they stop the film in its tracks in nothing short of jarring ways each and every time they begin. Granted, they're the only thing that separates this film from most of those he's done before, but the glaring and jolting contrast between them and the rest of the storytelling elements is too great.

The performances -- notwithstanding the material surrounding them -- are generally good, although some fair far better than others. Janet Jackson and Kerry Washington end up in the latter grouping, while Kimberly Elise, Loretta Devine and Thandie Newton are in the former, and the likes of Phylicia Rashad are somewhere in the in-between middle.

Perhaps if a creative filmmaker along the lines of Julie Taymor had tackled this project, it might have resulted in a better film. With Perry at the helm, however, it quickly turns from an initially somewhat unusual adaptation into one that's more of the same old, same old, buried under all of the melodrama. Where's Madea when you need her? (knowing my disdain for the character, that's saying something). "For Colored Girls" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 20, 2010 / Posted November 5, 2010

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