The lost contenders of ‘For Colored Girls’

Posted by · 9:16 am · January 14th, 2011

Thanks to a crippling flu attack during the film’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it UK release, I was late in getting round to Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” — a rumored Oscar spoiler for about seven-and-a-half minutes back in the autumn, before Lionsgate got curiously tentative about publicizing it.

A paucity of press screenings meant several key online voices missed the film entirely; they haven’t been that generous with awards screeners, either.

Given Perry’s history, and the steamroller-subtle nature of the film, the studio can’t have been expecting a critical hit — though it found some prominent supporters anyway, chief among them Manohla Dargis. I heard from a number of people I trust that the film, a free adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s beloved 1970s “choreopoem,” was messy and misjudged, while others acknowledged that it retained an inelegant brute power.

Finally seeing the film for myself, I discovered that all this, at various points, is true. I liked it a great deal — Perry’s a clumsy but full-blooded stylist, and his interpretation of Shange’s work, chaotic and often chintzy as it is, is rewardingly fat with language and feeling — but this was never going to be a Best Picture runner. “Precious,” like “Boyz N the Hood” nearly 20 years ago, may have proved Academy types aren’t wholly averse to African-American filmmaking, but the aggressively theatrical bombast of “For Colored Girls” was surely a bridge too far.

That’s not to say Lionsgate should have dispensed with a campaign entirely, because had they promoted the hell out of this thing to the actors (and, harsh as it sounds, been a little more strategically selective about which of the film’s nine co-leads to push), they could have had something here. For the film’s ensemble is a fascinating one, bursting with actresses tackling this dense material at wildly different pitches but with equal commitment — and a couple of stunning performances emerge from the clash.

Chief among them is the extraordinary Kimberly Elise, an actress who deserved an awards break in 1998 for her best-in-show turn in the similarly uneven but impassioned “Beloved” — and 12 years later, is once more the great lost Best Supporting Actress contender of the 2010 season.

Playing a stoic victim of domestic abuse who pays the worst imaginable price for her acquiescence, she counter-intuitively sidesteps the obvious traps of her director’s full-throttle approach: tersely quiet where lesser actresses would wallow in self-pitying histrionics, it’s profoundly moving and upsetting work that could well have benefited from a more focused Best Supporting Actress campaign. (Particularly with the Academy taking some flak for what will doubtless be the first all-white slate of acting nominees in 10 years — not that I condone such factors entering the conversation.)

As the emotional centerpiece of the film, Elise’s performance would have been the first place for voters to look, but her co-stars produce enough high-level thesping between them to justify ensemble honors that didn’t materialize either. Anika Noni Rose, in particular, merits an individual shout, principally for a seething post-rape monologue that lands just on the right side of the film’s stage origins. As a sex-addicted bartender, Thandie Newton turns in some of the most alert, adventurous work of her career, while Janet Jackson’s tight range has never been more strikingly deployed.

And while I’ve admitted to a bias in this respect, Macy Gray’s unnerving cameo as a Harlem backstreet abortionist — in which she negotiates more fluidly than anyone the script’s slightly awkward segues from Perry’s dialogue to Shange’s spoken-word poetry, admittedly with the dramatic alibi of alcoholism — further convinces me she’s one brave casting decision away from a Mo’Nique moment.

Still, this valuable if occasionally vexing film is principally Kimberly Elise’s triumph. I realize that her name is probably on precious few of the Oscar ballots being turned in ahead of today’s deadline, but that’s all the more reason to salute her. I can hardly chide voters for not seeing the film: I nearly didn’t myself, after all. Sorry, Kimberly — had I known, I’d have banged the drum harder.

[Photo: Lionsgate]

→ 16 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

16 responses so far

  • 1 1-14-2011 at 9:24 am

    Candice Frederick said...

    agreed. sad to see these performances marked dead on arrival with awards voters. real shame

  • 2 1-14-2011 at 9:32 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    I’ve been shaking the pom-poms for Kimberly Elise ever since I saw this film back in November. Yet, when I sang her praises to many of my favorite bloggers like Michael Cusumano and Nathaniel Rogers in the hopes of them joining the chorus, the reply was usually, “Sorry, it left theaters before I could see it and I never got a screener.”

    I’m not condemning them, of course; I’m condemning the studio that failed to promote her properly (as well as Anika Noni Rose, who NAILED a difficult monologue) and the critics who unfairly dogpiled on it while giving far worse films like Cyrus a pass.

    Hopefully, with time, more people can see just how amazing this actress was and will result in more work…but then, it’s tough for a black actress to get any good roles in Hollywood, no matter how talented.

  • 3 1-14-2011 at 9:45 am

    Julian Stark said...

    Anika Noni Rose gave one of my favorite performances of the year in this film. Though I admire all of the brilliant acting in the film, I felt that Rose was the only one – aside from the also phenomenal Phylicia Rashad – who nailed every bit of the monologues and never made them feel too “stagey”. She also had to transform her character from an overall optimistic woman to one with a bleak outlook on life.

  • 4 1-14-2011 at 9:46 am

    Patrick said...

    The reason that Lionsgate didn’t publicize it is that Tyler Perry didn’t want to do a lot of press for it. He was on a countrywide tour with one of his stage shows and ended up canceling the last 20 dates or so back in October out of exhaustion. Doing an Oscar campaign is hard work, and I suspect that between his stage tour, his live appearances, his two TV Shows and prep for the next film, Mr. Perry just didn’t have anything left in the tank.

  • 5 1-14-2011 at 10:20 am

    Patryk said...

    “….one brave casting decision away from a Mo’Nique moment…”

    Guy, you must be kidding.

    Watch “Shadowboxer” or “Training Day” again.

    I really did need a laugh this afternoon.

  • 6 1-14-2011 at 11:25 am

    Iamthenewblack said...

    Patryk, you must not have seen the film. I think Guy is spot on with his review. Macy gray’s one scene is so uncomfortable for the viewer from her voice to her mannerisms and the rhythm of her language that if she had at last one more scene she should have been pushed for a BSA nomination she is really good. Elise and Newton are also strikingly good but I must say I really did not like the film but that doesn’t begrudge the raw talent of Gray , Newton, and Elise.

  • 7 1-14-2011 at 11:37 am

    Alex in Movieland said...

    I completely completely disliked the film (and I did love Precious), but I thought Kimberly and especially Anika were fantastic.

    too bad Tyler Perry had to write it (I especially hated the was Janet’s character is treated: a pointless predictable cliche – even though she’s pretty good herself in the role).

    But how bad was Whoopi Goldberg, right? :) sorry to say, but to me it looks like she’s completely lost the acting talent- and this was a juicy role to tackle.

  • 8 1-14-2011 at 12:14 pm

    Walter said...

    Right on re: Gray and Newton. I’ve always liked Gray, but this was the first time I was impressed with Newton. Raw, theatrical where needed, surprisingly sympathetic. Loretta Devine was one of the only ones, for me, whose poetry flowed as naturally as her dialogue. And sorry, Alex, but I absolutely adored Whoopi. I thought she played it at just the right pitch, both frightening and familiar. This movie made it to my Top Ten. I know it’s got a number of flaws, but I can’t help it; this movie got to me.

  • 9 1-14-2011 at 12:31 pm

    Iamthenewblack said...

    I agree Alex Whoopi really overshot on this role.. She just couldn’t seem to locate the center of her character

  • 10 1-14-2011 at 3:02 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...


    Gray is an acting highlight in For Colored Girls. Since it’s safe to assume you didn’t see the film during it’s theatrical release nor do you have any interest in seeing it at all you’ll never know how wrong you are.

  • 11 1-14-2011 at 3:42 pm

    Mickche said...

    Saw For Colored Girls and the performances i most admired were Rashed & Newton with Jackson & Devine the worst. It simply felt clunky

  • 12 1-14-2011 at 4:02 pm

    R. Kurt Osenlund said...

    What a superb write-up. I felt so many of the very same things you did while watching “For Colored Girls,” a film I hugely appreciated. Loretta Devine and Phylicia Rashad were extraordinary, too, but it’s Elise who should indeed be in the running. That scene on the sidewalk? Shattering.

  • 13 1-14-2011 at 5:28 pm

    Patryk said...

    @/3rtfu11: I did see the film, unfortunately.

    Too bad the material was wasted in the hands of Tyler Perry. Janet Jackson was unintentionally hilarious. Too bad Lil’ Kim was unavailable.
    Kimberly Elise, however, is another story. She, as always, was perfection.

  • 14 1-14-2011 at 10:20 pm

    LostBoy68 said...

    You do know Kimberly Elise was nominated for a NAACP Image Award for this film?

  • 15 1-15-2011 at 2:01 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yes, as were three of her co-stars. With the greatest of respect, the Image Awards don’t mean an awful lot to me.

  • 16 1-15-2011 at 5:24 pm

    KBJr. said...

    The Image Awards don’t mean an awful lot period. And that’s the NAACP’s own fault.

    As far as the film goes, I saw it while it was in theaters, and felt like Perry was trying to hard to make this film “dramatic”…it just played rather cold to me.

    There were performances to be floored by in this film, but Elise wasn’t one of them. I feel like she plays “miserable” pretty good in most of her film roles, and this wasn’t a departure. Personally, I think she was a lot stronger in a little-seen film called “Woman Thou Art Loosed”, but that fell through the cracks.

    In my opinion, ‘Girls’ was a movie dominated by the robust personality that is Ms. Loretta Devine. She is such a phenomenal actress (and one that hasn’t received the attention she deserves), and her monologue was the strongest of the entire film. Thandie Newton played the hell out of a very complex character (and even managed to make her sympathetic, not a small feat).

    My wrath however, lies in the content of ‘Girls’…and the abysmal and scandalous way Perry depicts the husband of Janet Jackson’s character. **Spoiler** Perry has never responsibly handled a gay character is his films, and it’s frustrating. They seem to be mere props for him (one-dimensional, stereotypical, in the wrong, and easily demonized), and it disgusts me.

    I wonder what a film like this would have turned out in the hands of a director like Lee Daniels….too bad.