Director Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls" is a bold example of an artist's reach exceeding his grasp. But it's hard not to applaud his determination, and to grade for ambition.
Perry's adaptation of Ntozake Shange's shattering 1975 theater piece, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," is loaded with potent, powerfully acted moments.
The ensemble piece includes beautiful turns by Phylicia Rashad as a nosy apartment building manager, Anika Noni Rose as a dance instructor and Kimberly Elise as a capable office assistant whose war-veteran husband suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"For Colored Girls" also has more than a few blemishes. Macy Gray is cast as a back-alley abortionist. And as Alice, a religious zealot and oppressive mother, Whoopi Goldberg has never been so out of her depth.
Perry is known for comic dramas about black women that feature a rough-and-tumble, gun-toting aunt named Madea (played by Perry in outlandish drag). "For Colored Girls" is a somber departure.
Author Shange has called her fiercely wrought work a "choreo-poem." It consists of more than 20 poems, performed by seven characters identified by a prism of colors: "lady in orange," "lady in blue," "lady in yellow," etc. They hail from different parts of the U.S. but share on stage their overlapping stories about neglect, abuse and rape.
Perry has added two new protagonists to the cast -- Janet Jackson's magazine editor, Jo, and Goldberg's nut job -- given them all names and situated most of the film's action in Harlem.
Initially, few of the women know one another. Crystal (Elise) works for Jo. Jackson channels Prada-clad devil Miranda Priestly, but without a smidgen of humanity. One story line touches on black gay men living straight lives, or living on the "down low."
Crystal lives with her two beautiful children and disturbed husband (Michael Ealy in a anguished turn) on the same floor of a walk-up as Gilda (Rashad) and Tangie (Thandie Newton). Kerry Washington plays child-welfare caseworker Kelly, who's married to a detective.
All cross paths when tragedy draws them together.
If I don't mention the cast's menfolk it's because, as gloriously handsome as they are, they are inglorious bastards, with the exception of actor Hill Harper's police detective.
Like most of Perry's films, "For Colored Girls" invites audiences to ponder not just the meaning of the film but the cultural significance of the filmmaker himself.
Last month, the movie mogul appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show to share a history of being abused -- both physically and sexually. He's a survivor of violence and betrayal, at the hands of his father and other black men. Might this explain his attraction to a brilliant play that nevertheless has little to offer black males looking for their own liberating tale?
Of course, whoever undertook the challenges of bringing Shange's tour de force to the big screen had his or her work cut out. Bless Perry for weaving Shange's rich words into his characters' dialog.
As the dance teacher Yasmine, Rose delivers an incandescent and pained monologue about date rape.
And Loretta Devine, who plays Juanita, a nurse who runs a women's clinic but can't find a trustworthy love, has rare fun with a sharp poem. "Som'one almost walked off wid alla my stuff," she says with huff and awareness.