Saturday, February 19, 2011

Rainbows Have Nothing to Hide: FOR COLORED GIRLS

I’ve never been a fan of Tyler Perry, mostly because film after film showed he had promise that he was failing to fully realize. Instead, he spent his time making films that fit safely within what his base of audience members already wanted to see. (He was essentially becoming a new Kevin Smith). I very nearly liked a handful of his titles (for my money, his Family That Preys barely missed its chance to be a camp classic), but with each new release it was frustrating to see him gather up a collection of great, and otherwise underutilized, African American actresses and put them to use in plots of overstuffed and sloppy, anything-goes comic melodrama that gave bad names to both comedy and melodrama. The worst involved his own drag portrayals of a sassy grandma named Madea.

But I’m glad such underwhelming critical and overwhelming financial success has paved the way for his latest film, For Colored Girls, a go-for-broke adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed experimental choreopoem play from 1975, For Colored Girl Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Perry’s freely adapted, tonally brave film is just strange enough, just intense enough, and just enough of a leap forward in showing off his filmmaking talents that it could never have been made under a conventional studio deal. Instead, his personal fortune and own production company had put him in the perfect spot to take a large risk. I’m glad he did. This was a risk worth taking, rewarding him with a film that at long last marks his arrival as a talent to watch.

This is not a perfect film, but it’s a vital one that shakes about with a messy power. It gives riveting showcases to a collection of outstanding actresses. Perry’s more daring with his camera. There are moments in the film when I realized that he had been holding the camera on a close-up of an actress, letting her character speak her mind in one unbroken take. That’s when Shange’s text shines through, in these moments when a character will stop and speak elegantly and fluidly about her innermost feelings and about her tragic situation.

And tragic is precisely true. The women in this film struggle with child abuse, rape, infidelity, infertility, disease, spousal abuse, murder, and more. Perry not only regards these tragedies; he gets deep under the skins of his characters. This is a film that aches with sympathy for these women. It moves and bleeds with their emotions. The characters live interwoven lives that cross paths around one apartment building with a tough but caring supervisor (Phylicia Rashad). There’s a woman (Kimberly Elise) with two kids from an abusive boyfriend. There’s a compassionate dance instructor (Anika Noni Rose) who is just starting a romantic relationship. There’s a community center worker (Loretta Devine) who has an on-again-off-again relationship with an unfaithful ex. There’s a deeply religious woman (Whoopi Goldberg) with two dissimilar daughters (Thandie Newton and Tessa Thompson). There’s a caring social worker (Kerry Washington) who finds she can’t get pregnant. And there’s a successful businesswoman (Janet Jackson) who thinks she’s escaped her background but remains connected to it in ways that she can’t yet see.

Rather than a pile up of character and incident, the film has a riveting tension to it that comes from a thrilling sense of emotion and empathy. In ways that sometimes seem too simplistic and other times too over-the-top, Perry guides these women’s stories to deeply moving territory and back again with no camp, and no winking. This is earnest, deeply felt filmmaking. I’m glad he’s experimenting, even if I couldn’t always parse out the complexity (or is that messiness?) of what he’s trying to say. A sequence that crosscuts between one woman who is being date-raped and another woman suspecting her husband of infidelity is great filmmaking but muddled messaging. The moments individually have tremendous power, but Perry seems to be drawing a link between the two types of betrayal. (I hope he doesn’t think infidelity and rape are comparable crimes). Nonetheless, it seems to feed into the larger theme of shared pain within these women’s lives, even if it’s a theme that is at times inelegantly expressed.

What’s most thrilling about the film is the way Perry respects his actresses and discovers ways to use his camera to not just record, but express and augment performance. He frames Jackson in her posh apartment with walls and doorways forming cold, clean squares; she’s literally boxed herself away from emotional connection. Here and elsewhere within the film, he lets characters slip out the sides of the frame while conversing with each other. He pushes in on close-ups and pulls away to shift a close-up into a two shot. This is not, like any other Perry production, a film that sits idly by, casually collecting the surface of the story. Here Perry is utilizing his camera to get into his story, to explore his characters’ traumas in specific cinematic ways. As messy and muddled as it can get, it never feels less than alive. Even if it never quite feels like a cohesive whole, it feels emotionally full. It’s a fantastic, colorful piece of melodrama with deeply felt performances movingly captured.

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