Critics are used to readers disagreeing with their opinions; that comes with the territory. Never mind that a review, no matter how knowledgeable or entertaining the writer of it may be, is only an opinion, and like noses, everybody has one of those. And never mind that reviewers don’t always make or break an artist: Britney Spears sells truckloads more product that a “critic’s band” like Wilco, and if it were up to the critics, Nicholson Baker would be the household name, not Jackie Collins.
Still, it apparently flummoxed Roger Ebert, perhaps America’s best-known critic of any art form, when so many readers took personally his review of a recent popular movie. The film in question is Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and Ebert didn’t like it, not at all. “I’ve been reviewing movies for a long time,” he concluded in his 25 February assessment, “and I can’t think of one that more dramatically shoots itself in the foot.” Ebert is willing to give the film a chance, and praises the performances of the dramatic leads, but can’t get past an inconsistent script and a ham-handed performance by one of the stars, who also happened to write the screenplay and the stage play on which the movie is based.
Well, you’da thought Ebert had called Martin Luther King a sellout, judging by the reactions that came pouring in. He reported that he’d received more emails about his one-star review of Diary than for Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ put together. Here’s a sampling of some of the back-and-forth, as posted at Rogerebert.com:
“It’s no one’s fault that you feel you can’t have an open mind about different things such as Black plays and movie.”
“White people are so fascinating to me. You all walk around with Blinders on, thinking that your culture is the only one that exists.”
“I have never understood why movie critics like you even bother to relate to Black movies that you cannot relate to at all.”
To be fair, there were also comments from readers who supported Ebert’s take, and took to task those who basically called Ebert racist because he didn’t like one particular movie. And Ebert gave the matter some additional consideration, without changing his essential opinion of the film. But why would so many people feel so compelled to blast Ebert about this movie? Why would they call him racist when he’s been one of the staunchest supporters of black filmmakers for many years?
Let’s back up: Diary, although directed by Darren Grant, is really the baby of Tyler Perry, a young man with a true rags-to-riches, only-in-America story. He made his considerable fortune producing and starring in gospel plays, the under-the-mainstream-radar “chitlin’ circuit” of the post-civil rights era. These plays tour across the country, selling to a predominantly black audience that, unless a play by a black playwright is happening and it’s been well-promoted, would never set foot in a regular theater (and perhaps not even then). These plays combine broad comedy, singing, and dancing, and often a get-right-with-Jesus message (black church groups are a mainstay of these audiences). Newspaper theater reviewers don’t often bother writing them up in the daily paper, and if you don’t listen to black radio or watch syndicated reruns of black sitcoms, the main avenues where such plays are advertised, you won’t even know they’re in town. This is populist entertainment as validation for the workaday black masses, their mores and their tastes, cut from the same cloth as the bawdy, anything-but-highbrow road shows that have been performed since Elizabethan times.
Perry’s plays have proved especially popular because of the character he plays in them: Madea, an outsized, over-the-top, gun-toting, reefer-smoking grandma who don’t take no mess. Madea is modeled on the hard-suffering elderly lady that all black families have or recognize, the one who’ll offer her opinion on anything and everything and dare someone to say something about it. She loves her extended brood, but woe to the poor sap that would do any of them harm. Madea is played as the scene-stealing comic figure who acts as a release valve for laughter at the everyday pain of life. If anything, the matricharchial rock has become a stock figure in black culture, as sent up in George C. Wolfe’s play The Colored Museum, and its “the last mama-on-the-couch play” scene.
Diary follows in the cinematic footsteps of last fall’s Woman, Thou Art Loosed, another transplant from the gospel play circuit. Loosed is based on the writing and preaching of T.D. Jakes, one of the most popular religious figures in black America. Both films star Kimberly Elise in accomplished performances. And both films surprised Hollywood with their strong showings at the box office: Diary was the top-grossing film its opening weekend, which just so happened to be the same February weekend as the Academy Awards.
And that is where the similarities end. Loosed was an engrossing piece of work, with a nuanced, intelligent script that, until the final frames, avoided cliché. Diary, however, is a mess. In it, Elise plays a woman who is literally thrown out of her home by her philandering husband (Steve Harris). She manages to make it back to Madea’s family compound, where she begins to reassemble her life. The movie settles into a predictable rhythm: a few scenes of Elise’s character getting her groove back, finding new love, and forgiving her lousy husband, then an abrupt interruption for a Madea scenery-chewer, meant to be comic relief with a modicum of plot advancement, but not very funny at all (especially when compared to the legion of comedic grandma roles in plays, sitcoms and movies over the years)—and, oh yeah, a scene with lots of people singing in church.
Perry’s portrayal of Madea adds nothing new to our understanding of black families, and in fact trades on the same-old, limiting stereotypes of black women, which the omnipotent grandma has become, instead of transcending them. We’re so used by now to seeing them portrayed as such that we’ve come to accept that as the way they all are. Many black grandmas are indeed the moral and practical centers of their families, but they don’t all do it with one-liners and hands-on-hips sass. Overall, Diary is so irritatingly predictable that I wished my theater seat had been equipped with a fast-forward button.
I could go on some more about this hackneyed piece of work, but it would be only my opinion, just as Ebert only offered his (as did most of America’s film critics, who for the most part didn’t like it either—including several among the small handful of black ones). I’m more fascinated by all the people hating on Ebert, or any white critic who panned Diary, accusing them of not understanding black life because they didn’t like one particular film.
I’m not quite sure where this impulse comes from. Partly, I think, it’s a release of pent-up frustration after generations of not seeing many stories and characters of color on the big screen, especially those told by people of color themselves. Part of it is wishful thinking, wanting so much to defend a young brotha who’s done well for himself after overcoming personal hardships. But a bigger part of it might come from confusion about just what it is a film critic is supposed to do.
If a story is successful in one medium, that’s one thing. But when it’s translated into film, it must be judged by its merits as a film. Its success in the prior incarnation, be it novel, play, or comic book, serves as nothing more than back-story for the promotion of the film and its subsequent reviews. When a film critic sits down to watch a movie, at that moment it’s all and only about what’s up there on the screen.
When films deal with segments of the population that aren’t part of the mainstream, it would be nice if the critic had some understanding about that segment, or at least maintained an open mind. Yes, there are some critics who can’t or won’t do that in many instances, but they’re no different a group of people than any other Americans (would someone say that a black critic who pans a Woody Allen tale of upper-class Manhattanites doesn’t understand white people?). But at the end of the day, what matters is the critic’s ability to discuss the film on its cinematic merits, not any sociopolitical or cultural tangents.
Further, the idea that a work of art with black characters is necessarily good primarily because you can recognize some of the characters from real life is absurd. Yes, it always helps to have characters you can empathize with, or types you’ve seen from your own experience. But if that were the most important thing, the lamentable Jamie Foxx sex farce Booty Call would be ranked right up there with Citizen Kane among the all-time greats.
It’s not at all necessarily racist to say that a black film isn’t very good. Lots of such works have been ripped apart by the critics for example, the aforementioned Booty Call and that hasn’t stopped filmmakers or studios from trying to tap into the black filmgoing audience (there are other issues in play there, but Hollywood seldom makes decisions based on what a critic might say). It doesn’t matter whether or not a critic has ever seen a gospel play when it comes time to review the film adaptation of it. The movie’s the thing, not the play. Earnestness, sensitivity to a community’s culture and good intentions don’t automatically make a solid work of art. Traits such as believability, coherence, and originality are the things that matter, and although there are many ways to achieve them, as qualities they’re essentially colorblind. After years of accomplished work, from Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams in the ‘40s to Spike Lee and F. Gary Gray today, “just because black folks are in it” is no longer good enough, if indeed it ever was.
Duke Ellington once said that there are only two types of music, good music and bad music. I’ll argue that the same applies to movies, and Diary clearly, to me and a lot of other folks, falls in the “bad” category. As for Ebert’s haters, they should console themselves with the knowledge that Diary won’t be the first or the last flick to overcome bad reviews with great box office. Just keep saying to yourselves: “it’s only a movie review, it’s only a movie review . . . “
And while I’m in the neighborhood, when exactly did “black film” become a genre? The notion that all movies with casts of color should be evaluated primarily by their reflection of the community in question is not fair to any of them. Ray, a biopic by style and content, has more in common with Coal Miner’s Daughter (the biopic of country singer Loretta Lynn) than it does with Diary or Loosed or Shaft. But while it’s obviously a big moment in the timeline of blacks in film (congratulations to Jamie Foxx for finally living down the aforementioned Booty Call), Ray is destined to be lumped into the same group as Diary and all the others because of the ethnicity of its participants.
No one would ever dream of saying that, to name just two, On the Waterfront and Chicago are both “white” movies because they involve white characters. They’d be recognized as two different animals, and judged along their own respective merits. So why do people insist on trumping genre with race when it comes to what black folks do? It’s one thing and a perfectly fine one at that to prefer films with black performers and storylines. But there are comedies, and dramas, and action flicks, and love stories, and musicals, and sci-fi creations, and many more genres. “Black” may inform the work of art, but it is not a form of art per se.
If anything, “black” has become a marketing distinction, used to pique the attention of black consumers who otherwise wouldn’t set foot in the door. Yes, that makes it easier for those who only want “black” to know where to shop or what to attend. But I like it much better (and I think it’s a truer, fairer acknowledgement of the black artist’s skills) when, for example, bookstores don’t shelve Toni Morrison’s novels in the same section with her non-fiction social criticism or meditations on literature. I really like it when bookstores dispense with the notion of a “black fiction” section completely, when Morrison and all the other black novelists are in the same “fiction” section with John Grisham and Zanie Smith. Like film, fiction is neither black nor white nor green, it’s just fiction. But I’ve come to accept the economic reality of needing to maintain such sections for the convenience of those specifically seeking black novelists. But then again, Charley Pride is in the “country” section of the music store, not the “black country singers” section, and there’s no “white rappers” section for Eminem.
I fully realize that all of that may not mean a hill of beans to the many fans and defenders of Diary. I don’t begrudge the movie’s success, nor will I hate on those who enjoyed it. But as more and more black entertainment product finds its way from the ‘hood to the mainstream, it will necessarily be judged by a different standard than by the nurturing, ever-supportive milieu from which it emerged. That’s not right, and that’s not wrong. Simply put, that’s show biz.