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25th November
written by Mad Cow

Rated R for disturbing violence including a [very realistic] rape, sexual conduct and language

Mad Cow’s Rating: three cowbells

I was privileged to have seen Ntozake Shange’s original “choreopoem,” for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf on the stage in the mid-1970s. Fiercely feminist, it spoke to the hearts and souls of countless African American women. Most white feminists, I among them, loved it too. The movie version, which touches the edges of feminism, is grand in its own way even as it evokes nostalgia for the searing original.

In the stage performance each of a series of prose poems are spoken, with dramatic music, dancing, and choral repetitions, by seven women from seven different cities. The women are identified only by the color of dress.

Director Tyler Perry, widely known for his cross-dressing in movies featuring “Madea” and his movie moralizing, wrote the screenplay, a story incorporating many of the poems. The film is an ensemble creation, with a cast of incredibly talented actresses and actors, including many “new” ones who are part of what amounts to a new story. The movie is more than the poems fleshed out; it’s a new construction that was inspired by the original.

In the movie the women live in New York City and at the beginning several know each other. Portions of the poems are embedded in the dialogues at special moments. The women are their own Greek choruses, pausing to expound. It works because of the beauty and profundity of the words. It’s as though we are looking into the women’s souls.

All of the women, including the newly invented characters, are beset by tragedy in one way or another. Like A Chorus Line or The Vagina Monologues, one has to see the stories standing alone, although in Perry’s creation they do not, calling for a sincere suspension of disbelief. For me this wasn’t difficult because of Perry’s direction and the first-rate performances. It’s a disappointment, though, that Perry decided not to add any “out” lesbians and his gay male character is homophobic.

All of the actors are superb, from Janet Jackson’s portrayal as a rich/bitch magazine editor (yes, like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada) to Phylicia Richard as the building superintendent where several of the women live.  Anika Noni Rose (currently a regular on The Good Wife) as Yasmine and Kimberly Elise (Diary of a Mad Black Woman) as Crystal pull us inextricably into their painful realities as they face the unfaceable. Neither reduces the character’s pain to soap opera, which would have been an easy mistake. I expect to see Oscar nominations for one or both of these actors. Others in the ensemble include Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Tessa Thompson, Kerry Washington and Macy Gray.

Loretta Devine as Juanita plays a stereotype of a loud-mouthed, overweight woman better at helping others than herself. Devine overcomes the narrowness of stereotype, giving us a window into a woman who finds her inner strength. She, like the others, is a survivor. And surviving in sisterhood is what this movie is about.

Credit goes to Perry for avoiding maudlin melodramatics. His camera angles, use of color, and use of head shots are very effective. He had to decide whether to show several horrific acts of violence and he decided in the affirmative each time, making this movie not for everyone. Be forewarned. Yet he gives the women voices that ring true in a movie that has artistic integrity most of the time.

In interviews Shange has endorsed the movie with reservations, saying Perry did “as well as to be expected.” Dismissing the films’ critics she said “I haven’t seen those people in twenty years. I don’t know who those people are, they don’t know me.”

Many movie goers struggle between the quality/narrative of a book or play compared with the film, especially when they adored the former. The best we can hope for is some facsimile of the essence of the original. This is only a facsimile. The book yields magic every time one reads it and I’m sure every time one sees it.  We must see the movie as something else. As much as I’d love everyone to see the original (and maybe more people will read it now), this movie will reach many more people than the play ever did and it’s a good movie. And I don’t recall a white actor in it.  This is a good thing.

Nothing is perfect and nothing is ever good enough and I’ve found out that lots of people despise Tyler Perry and will never forgive him for doing this movie. Others really love him! I confess that I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry movie other than this one. But he didn’t destroy anything. Tomorrow someone else can make a better movie based on this play, one that captures the feminist breadth and depth of it. In any case, it’s sad that Perry is subject to pressures created by the fact that so few movies our there are about – or even include – people of color.

Movies with “non-whites” (please pardon the expression) at the helm rightfully get incredible scrutiny from people of color, who worry about how they are depicted – whether as stereotypes or unreal in various ways. There is longing for one movie to be perfectly executed and real among people who are subject to negative stereotypes and who infrequently see their real selves on the screen.  White audiences don’t have to fret about whether that stupid comedy puts white men in a bad light or portrays all white women as sluts. And even though white actresses  get insufficient numbers of important fully-developed serious parts, they are still way ahead of all actors of color. Perry owns the only all-black movie studio in the U.S. and he is creatively ambitious. He went beyond his usual fare here. More power to him.

I loved this movie and plan to see it again. It’s worth the price of the movie and it’s worth supporting.

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