Nina Simone contributed only one original song to her 1966 album Wild Is The Wind, but it isn’t easily forgotten. “Four Women” offers four verses of concise, moving portraits that get beneath the surfaces of four stereotypes of African-American womanhood with such attention to psychological detail that, by each verse’s end, it’s impossible to see them as stereotypes anymore. Playwright and poet Ntozake Shange might have had Simone’s song in mind when she penned her 1975 theater piece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf, a collection of 20 choreographed poems—“choreopoems,” to use Shange’s term—voiced by seven performers. Each is identified only by the color of her clothing, and each offers a vivid, lyrical expression of different experiences of what it was like to be a black woman in America at a time when such expressions were rarely heard onstage, much less on TV or in movies. A version of Simone’s song joining her voice to contemporary singers plays over the closing credits of For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Shange’s play. It’s an unnecessary update of the song, but a respectful one. The same can’t be said of the film.
There’s no right way to do an adaptation, particularly a difficult-to-adapt work like this, but there are plenty of wrong ways, and Perry’s film offers a casebook of things-not-to-do. For starters, he tries to join all those disparate voices into a story, one mostly centered around a five-story walk-up home to many of the film’s characters. These include Crystal (Kimberly Elise; yes, the women have names here), the assistant to a high-powered magazine editor (Janet Jackson) and mother of two children by an abusive, psychologically damaged military vet. She lives next door to a wise, knowing older woman (Phylicia Rashad) and across the hall from Tangie (Thandie Newton), a sexually aggressive, emotionally unsatisfied cocktail waitress. Tangie, in turn, lives above her mother (Whoopi Goldberg), a hoarder, cult member, and mother to a bright, college-bound girl (Tessa Thompson) who isn’t sure what to do about her unplanned pregnancy.
There’s more, all of it as soapy in its presentation as it sounds by bare description, and little of it allowing enough room for Shange’s source material, which is largely shoehorned with little grace between plot developments. The upside is that much of the cast does right by the source material which makes it to the screen, especially Loretta Devine and Anika Noni Rose, who get to deliver some memorable monologues with little interruption. Others aren’t so lucky, and nobody gets spared the expected Perry moralizing that removes any ambiguity from Shange’s work, and makes every development a matter of right and wrong. That’s to say nothing of some tasteless staging choices—including a rape scene cut against an opera aria—and an update that’s only half there. Incorporating talk of HIV makes sense in 2010; a warning against the perils of back-alley abortions less sense. But being caught between eras isn’t the film’s real problem: it’s the way the film keeps muffling voices that want to sing.