Dark phrases of womanhood, of never havin' been a girl, half-notes scattered, without rhythm, no tune, distraught laughter fallin', over a black girl's shoulder.
So begins For Colored Girls, a film based on the 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Ntozake Shange's 20-poem play has been altered, of course, with director Tyler Perry adding characters, bolstering its freeform structure and adding a few elements that will be more familiar to Perry's fans than Shange's. Interwoven stories show what it can look like to be a black American woman—through several sets of hurting, harrowed eyes.
But despite the title, the film is not just for colored girls. While the issues that unfold here may particularly resonate with an African-American audience, the themes at play are, in some respects, universal: Infidelity and promiscuity abide no color barrier. Incest, rape and abortion haunt us all. For Colored Girls, in its narrative cadence, conveys what it means to be human in a flawed, perhaps failing world. Torn asunder by circumstances, crushed by events, the characters we see are still striving, through the everyday pain and poetry of life, to soar.
[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]
Beyond that one statement, very little that happens within the movie's confines is particularly positive. The women here are rocked from every corner, and many of the issues raised are the sorts of things very few churches or social groups dare to talk about. The content, then, is forceful and scathing.
But in real life, unspeakable cataclysms do happen. And when those things are reflected onscreen, we find a sincere, albeit sometimes faltering, community of women doing their best to pick up the pieces.
Gilda is the film's moral center—a busybody landlord who helps two women through their pain and self-destruction. She comes with tough love, telling promiscuous Tangie, "It ain't just sex, honey. It all has a root, and you got to find that root and pluck it." To Crystal—suicidal after her lover does something truly, truly horrible—Gilda says that she has to "take some responsibility" for what happened. "Until you do, you're just going to be living to die."
Other characters sometimes help each other as much as their fractured lives allow, but most are on voyages of self-discovery, forced to own up to their own mistakes before finding the strength to lend others a hand.
Alice, we're told, is in a cult. She prays to Elohim (one of the names the Bible uses to refer to God) for guidance, and she solicits donations for her "church." Her beliefs have strained her relationships with her two daughters. She despises Tangie, her oldest, for her promiscuity—calling her "the devil" at one point. And when Alice learns that her youngest, Nyla, had an abortion ("That what was growing inside you was a sin," Alice says later; "it had to be destroyed"), she makes her pray before a phalanx of candles while she smears Nyla's forehead with the mark of the cross and pours oil on her head. When Nyla freaks out, Alice grabs her and tries to perform an impromptu exorcism. Alice leaves a party because they're playing "the devil's music." Tangie calls out after her, "Yes it is!"
Crystal offers a spiritual monologue that invokes God. But in the end, it may reference a more metaphorical god than the real one: "I felt god in myself," she says, "and I loved her fiercely!"
Nearly every character is dealing with and has been damaged by sex.
Tangie is the film's most promiscuous character. She uses sex as a form of power—an excuse to treat her one-night stands like dirt the next morning. And her sexual dysfunction has deep roots: Alice, we learn, was abused by her father and then, at 15, "given" to a white man so the father could have a light-skinned grandchild (Tangie) that he could also abuse.
One of her conquests mistakes her for a prostitute, telling her (as she tries to strip off his pants) that he might not have enough money.
Her recitation punctuated by sexualized dance moves, Nyla says she lost her virginity in the back of a car. We learn later that Nyla is 16 when one of Tangie's "dates" asks if Nyla would be interested in "joining" them. Tangie throws the guy out, asking him whether he's a pedophile.
Crystal lives with her lover. She refuses to marry him—in large part because he drinks and abuses her. The first time we see Crystal, she's weeping as her partner moves on top of her in bed. The man later thinks, erroneously, that Crystal has cheated on him.
Kelly, a government case worker, can't have babies because of an STD she contracted from an earlier boyfriend. She tells her husband the whole sordid story—including how her boyfriend cheated on her with one of her best friends.
Juanita, a social volunteer, is involved with a man who can't decide between her and another woman. Both repeatedly take him back, so he moves from place to place, apologetically groveling each time. Just when Juanita's determined to throw the guy out on his ear, he begins to kiss her, and his head works down her body (out of camera range) as she moans. She asks him if he brought condoms. (She teaches sex ed classes in the community, showing women how to best use condoms—given away free by the clinic.)
Jo, a high-powered magazine editor, is married to a man who—while insisting he's not gay—has sex with other men. We see him check out other guys' rears, draw eye contact with a man at an opera performance and get busted by the police for apparently engaging in oral sex in a car. Jo doesn't know until the end of the film, when she learns she's contracted HIV.
Yasmine, a dance instructor, finally agrees to go out on a date with a man who's been walking her to work for several days. When the date goes well, she agrees on a second—one in which she says she'll cook for him. But when he arrives at her apartment, he takes off his clothes (we see him from the back) and rapes her. She's pinned underneath him, crying, concentrating desperately on a nearby clock.
Elsewhere, we see men in various states of undress, and a woman with her bathrobe open, exposing portions of her breasts. Characters use coarse descriptions for sexual acts and sporadic double entendres.
Nyla gets an abortion—going to a back-alley practitioner named "Rose" who sterilizes her instruments with the whiskey she's drinking. "You don't have no name, girl," the abortionist says when Nyla tries to give hers, and the camera zooms in on instruments of the trade. Later, Nyla winds up in a hospital—mentally and/or physically traumatized from her encounter with Rose. She offers up a brutal poem describing her experience, describing the child "dying, dangling between" her legs, describing seeing "eyes between my thighs." "This hurts," Nyla says. "This hurts me."
Crystal's boyfriend gets violent when he drinks. We see him smash a glass against a wall when she brings him water instead of the alcohol he craves, and she and their two children obviously walk in fear of him. When a social worker asks one of Crystal's children how he got some bruises, the boy says he "just fell down"—words we know are lies. Gilda tells us that she hears, through the walls, the man beat Crystal, and she begs a social worker to help. Later, while watching Crystal's children, she (and we) hear Crystal and her lover fight again—watching as the pictures rattle against the walls.
After the fight, we see Crystal trying to stopper a bloody nose while the man takes his children back from Gilda. Things escalate again when he spies Crystal's boss's car waiting out front: He believes the chauffeur is Crystal's lover—and the father of their two children. In a rage, he grabs the children, dangles them out the window and lets go—sending them plummeting, screaming to their deaths.
In the aftermath, Crystal takes a bucket of water to the sidewalk and tries to scrub the bloodstain out of the concrete. "People walking all over it," she says, "my babies' blood." Then she tries to kill herself, overdosing on a bottle of pills.
Yasmine's rapist is eventually killed—stabbed offscreen while raping another woman. Yasmine is taken to the morgue to identify the body, and she slaps the face of the corpse. Women occasionally fight with each other, pushing and hitting.
Crude or Profane Language
About 13 f-words, another 10 s-words and several uses of "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑," along with crude and vulgar words for the human anatomy. God's name is misused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Crystal's lover's drinking problem was brought on, we're told, by wartime and postwar problems. Crystal asks if he's taken his medication, suggesting a mental condition. Yasmine admits to having "one sip of wine" before she was raped, adding that she doesn't typically drink. Several characters down wine, beer and mixed drinks. Monologues refer to alcohol.
Tangie, a bartender, serves a "double vodka straight" to a man whom she later takes home. She calls herself a "deliberate cokehead."
Other Negative Elements
Gilda is a nosy busybody, not above opening the doors of other people's apartments if given a good reason (and, truth be told, she usually figures one out).
We see Nyla vomit into a trash can—obviously in the throes of morning sickness.
For Colored Girls is unlike any movie I've seen this year—and maybe for a whole lot longer than that. It's constructed something like a jazz song—moments of brilliant solo improvisation bridged by a competent musical theme. The core tune may "work," but it's the solos that push you back in your seat and leave you gasping for air.
The poems put forth in For Colored Girls are far from improvised, of course. But they are, for language geeks like me, beautiful—and a stark contrast to the movie's ugly, gut-twisting stories. With For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry has set aside his melodramatic morality tales and has given us something that, while still containing elements of earlier works, ascends—at times—to art.
But art can be hard on the ears and eyes and soul, and this piece of it has the ability to abuse its observers. For Colored Girls is not family friendly. It is not a film with a happy ending or pleasant moral. Through its lens, we're thrust into Gehenna—a place of filth and pain. And yet in its midst there is life and beauty, too. Much, I suppose, like what life can and sometimes does really look like in this fallen world.
"We should be immune if we're still alive," Tangie says. "How are we still alive?"
The question isn't perhaps whether we should watch this film or not … but how, when we see its celluloid problems in real life, we respond to them. For Colored Girls shows us a world of hurt that we bear responsibility to heal as best we can.