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Originally published November 4, 2010 at 3:02 PM | Page modified November 4, 2010 at 3:18 PM

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Movie review

'For Colored Girls' is smart women, foolish filmmaking

Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls" takes a star-studded cast and gives it little but melodrama to work with.

Seattle Times arts critic

Movie review 2 stars

'For Colored Girls,' with Whoopi Goldberg, Loretta Devine, Janet Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Macy Gray. Directed by Tyler Perry, based on the play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf" by Ntozake Shange. 134 minutes. Rated R for violence, sexual content and language. Several theaters.

Before it was a Broadway hit, Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf" was a low-tech, dance-poetry piece I caught at tiny Minnie's Can-Do club in San Francisco.

The show's poetic verve and feisty candor about the joys and challenges of being young, black and female in 1970s America made it a fresh, vivid work. Yet who could imagine, 35 years on, "For Colored Girls" would become a star-studded mess of a movie directed by a black, male Hollywood mogul?

Here comes Tyler Perry's splashy film version, with Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Whoopi Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad and other big-name talents.

This is a prestige project for Perry, best known for his broad "Madea" comedies, featuring a crafty crone (whom he plays while in drag).

"For Colored Girls" is, by contrast, a mostly dead serious (and often seriously deadly) expansion of Shange's play. And it is mired in melodrama.

Perry's screenplay connects Shange's characters via a New York apartment house, overseen by a wise, caring super (Rashad). One tenant is Tangie (Thandie Newton), an angry, promiscuous bartender with a religious-fanatic mom (Goldberg) and a naive little sister (Tessa Thompson). Another, Crystal (Kimberly Elise), lives in terror with her two kids and their scary dad, a traumatized war veteran.

These lives touch those of Juanita (Devine), a zesty nurse; dance teacher Jasmine (Anika Noni Rose); and Jo (Jackson), a Devil-Wears-Prada fashion editor, with cheekbones that could slice through glass.

Shange's lush poetry winds elegantly/awkwardly through a saga that unites women in sisterhood — and as victims of raping, murdering, two-timing men.

It's 2010, but it's as if "Smart Women, Foolish Choices" and Planned Parenthood had never happened. There are some moving and humorous bits, thanks to actors who damp it down — Rashad, Rose, Devine. But most are encouraged to ferociously over-emote in extreme close-up.

They deserve better. So do filmmakers who can offer more complex portraits of modern African-American women, given the chance.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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