[26 June 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It may seem like an oxymoron, but Tyler Perry has made some good movies. Not GREAT movies, mind you, but perfectly acceptable examples of near mainstream entertainment that have the added benefit of bringing disenfranchised and forgotten viewers of color back to the cinema to celebrate their own. While still growing, he’s gained significant commercial status. Still, he’s a divisive character, a creator who loves to languish in the old school style known as melodrama while invoking an even more marginal device, the drag act, to generate laughs. Indeed, when decked out in full Madea Simmons garb, giving the young one’s what for while quoting soul classics from a bygone era, he’s the ultimate entertainment gimmick. Even if you find his films flawed beyond repair, the iconic gun-toting, pot smoking granny with a pantry of personal advice to ladle out like pans full of hot grits is a near guarantee of… good.
So why don’t more movie lovers “get” Perry? Well, it could be a lack of previous experience. He got his start on the stage, offering inspirational plays and musical variety shows to churches throughout the South. He then stretched to the more urban areas for the country. By the time his first film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, hit theaters, he was an established part of the poorly named “Chitlin’ Circuit”. Since then, he’s tried to expand his scope to include other aspects of the American experience while always keeping his cause squarely situated in faith and the minorities who rely on it for hope/help. With yet another entry in his growing oeuvre hitting theaters this week (Madea’s Witness Protection Program, 29 June), it’s time to look back at what’s he has accomplished and highlight the decent. Perhaps, with a little open-mindedness, this list will inspire you to check out his sunny, often soul-uplifting efforts, beginning with:
In the minds of most Perry fans, the artist’s output can be divided up into two categories: with Madea and without, the latter being his least bankable and commercially viable. Yet this return to the days of King Vidor and Imitation of Life level potboilers worked rather well. Perhaps it was the cast, including Oscar winner Kathy Bates, Alfre Woodard, and Robin Givens. Maybe, as his fifth film as writer/director, Perry was practiced and ready to deliver. Indeed, this was a turning point film for him, one not based in his previous stage work and showcasing an ability to at least grasp the needs of mainstream moviemaking.
First off, many forget that Perry did not direct this film. Music video ace Darren Grant was behind the lens and this was his first feature… and it shows. There are issues with the pacing, the payoffs, and the performances. Yet this was also a pristine example of the initial phase in Perry’s plotlining. Men are pigs, women are saints, and sitting along the fringe was a frumpy, berating battleaxe with a corporal punishment answer to everything. As a idea, Madea would only get better with artistic age (by now, she’s almost a classic comedy character). At this stage, she was just a weird element in an engaging, if strained, showcase.
Another non-Madea entry, and another mixed bag of results. Perry plays it straight, addressing the standard social ladder schism he often sees between the wealthy people of color and the disenfranchised they left behind. It’s a noble idea, and as his 11th effort behind the lens, a well made one. Yet the same old issues do come up, especially without a comic counterpoint to the dramatics. We get bogged down in manipulative moviemaking, emotions tweezed like errant hairs off Grandma’s chin. Perry needs balance in order to get his point understood, less he come across as pious and preachy. As a result, this film suffers from its own sanctimoniousness.
When he was finally allowed the opportunity to make his own damn movie, Tyler Perry proved he was just as capable as a man who made music videos for a living. Jangled, jumpy, and a bit juvenile, this remains one of the filmmaker’s most frustrating titles. On the one side, everything revolving around Madea, Joe, and her haggard family is fine. Actually, it’s quite fun. But once the more serious storylines (incest, abuse) kick in, the movie gets muddled. Perry is never going to make a flat out comedy. He enjoys his life lessons too much. But here, the lecture turns leaden.
Among his many accomplishments as an entertainment tycoon, Perry has provided several unsung actors and singers with avenues for stardom and social acceptance. He’s done this for Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley, Cassi Davis, and perhaps most famously, gospel giants David and Tamala Mann. These amazing vocalists, scorching cathedrals with their intense, soulful voices, have become the best bet Perry ever gambled on. Turning the former into funny man Mr. Brown, he finally found a perfect complement to Madea’s mad antics. While the plays provide a better showcase for this back and forth, this film finds a way to illustrate how effective frustrated fashion disaster vs. cranky old coot can be.
There is another ‘all star’ cast here—superstar singer Janet Jackson being, perhaps, the most recognizable face—and the narrative focuses on one of Perry’s pet peeves (interpersonal relationships), resulting in one of this most consistent efforts. We get the various set-ups (disgruntled husband, henpecking wife, adulterous spouses, drunken divas) as well as the sainted stud who shows up to save everyone, but there are also real insights into couples and what connects/countermands them that indicate where Perry comes from. This is not just some screed about respect and responsibility. By highlighting obvious flaws and offering clear solutions, he provides something different within the standard dramatic arc.
While the two storylines here never really converge, this remains one of Perry’s funniest films. As he often does in his stage plays, he simply sets Madea down in certain situations and lets her aggressive, angry personality permeate everything. Even with the more staged, static material (a meeting with Dr. Phil? Really?), Perry’s performance is excellent. The young attorney falling for a former girlfriend-now hooker narrative is a little less nuanced. Indeed, the female lawyer fiance on the outside looking in lacks only a moustache to twirl to explain her purpose. Still, as we are holding our sides with laughter, Perry sneaks in his message, and the meaning sticks.
It was only a matter of time before Perry let music, not Madea, do the talking, and this is one of his best comic dramas. The story is simple—three orphans looking for a home with their drunken diva aunt—and the payoff contains plenty of amazing music from the likes of Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige, and perhaps, most spectacularly, Marvin Winans. Indeed, the songs here and the remarkable performances of same make this a must see for lovers of good Gospel music. The version of “Oh Lord I Want You to Help Me” offered here will literally renew your spirit.
Speaking of musicals, Perry makes his most bold statement as a filmmaker here… and few paid close attention. There was always going to be some backlash to the notion of this particular artist tackling one of African American culture’s most sacred texts, but there is really nothing wrong with this revision. In fact, Perry makes the intriguing decision to treat Ntozake Shange’s proto slam poetry like songs without melody. In between his cautiously crafted storyline, the actresses break out in moments of memorable verse, even if there is no music backing them up. While it was pitched toward Award Season respect, this effort illustrated that there was more to Perry than wigs and worn-out housecoats.
It seems slightly unfair to list this as Perry’s best, if only because it represents his most recent efforts as an artist, and one assumes that all creative types grow and mature with age. Knowing that audiences react most favorably when he carefully mixed broad humor with homespun advice, he takes the tale of a woman trying to tie up loose ends before she dies and turns it into a devastating denouncement of trivial family feuds. Yes, Madea warrants most of the attention and focus, but what she has to say about respect and love are important, vital judgments. And the jokes are good, too.