While you were watching the Oscars, Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail was the No. 1 movie in America, pulling in $41 million at the box office over the weekend. It’s the highest-grossing opening ever for the black filmmaker. The crowd I saw it with was mostly black—white people may catch on and join the bandwagon. They may not. (Many may not get their first look at Perry until his cameo as the head of Starfleet Command in this summer’s Star Trek film.) But none of that seems to matter. Perry has arrived, and he looks to be settling in for a long stay.
The 39-year-old has a great rags-to-riches story. He struggled for years in Atlanta until he produced his first play in 1998; his plays have gone on to become huge hits (he became a wealthy man before his first movie, 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, was released). He has seamlessly expanded his reach into films (the new release is his seventh), as writer, producer, director and actor.
Perry has arrived by going straight to black audiences and giving them what they want, which, it seems, is some good old-fashioned domestic melodrama, usually involving a good woman who’s lost her way and is redeemed through the Lord and the power of forgiveness, and a healthy dose of Mabel “Madea” Simmons, Perry’s alter ego, the whirlwind comedic/moral force at the center of many of his movies. Add in a healthy scoop of tears and jokes, and there you are. If it’s pandering, then it’s pandering to a demographic, largely black women, who have been profoundly underserved in popular movies through the years.
Now Perry presides over an empire that includes his own 200,000-square-foot movie studio, plays, movies and two popular television shows. He’s one of the most independent filmmakers in Hollywood, and he’s achieved his success, it seems, by not compromising his own vision. The juggernaut, by all accounts, does not seem to be slowing down.
There’s just one thing: His movies aren’t very good. Now, true, we could spend a paragraph on the huge success of a white director like, oh, Michael Bay, whose movies aren’t very good, either. And maybe that’s the unfair burden of being black, still, in America—the need to overrepresent your people. But it’s practical, too. Michael Bay is just one white director. There are plenty of others who can stand in as “auteurs.” Black filmmakers only get a few chances to bring any sort of vision of black cinema to life. If Perry’s movies were really good, you would have read countless stories by now linking him with that other symbol of black achievement, the new cat on Pennsylvania Avenue.
But, look … I don’t want to slag Perry or his movies out of hand, with an elitist’s sneer, because that’s too easy. He draws from a consistent pool of talented B-list actors and a few underrated A-caliber performers, including Kimberly Elise, Gabrielle Union, Idris Elba, Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard. His movies deal with many of the issues at the heart of black life today—including the relationships between black men and black women, and between professional and working-class African-Americans. There’s little if any pretense about what he aims to do. And, without apology, he celebrates the nurturing force of the black church. Religion is rarely given anything like a sophisticated treatment in the movies in liberal Hollywood, and while Perry’s simple “Put your faith in God” bromides are not sophisticated, either, they reflect part of the enduring culture of black America.
But as a writer, he crafts stories that are earnestly formulaic. As a filmmaker, he has no discernible style. As a comedian, he’s not exactly Richard Pryor. Going to see a new Tyler Perry movie is not like going to see early Spike Lee—with the excitement of how a young artist would challenge you. (Again, Perry’s lack in this regard is shared by virtually every commercially successful filmmaker in America these days, of any color.) Instead, I always have the feeling of mild embarrassment about Perry—like he’s a barometer that gauges those people whose taste you can appreciate (his critics) and those whose taste you can’t (his fans). But above all, it’s the resigned thought I have that, of all the guys to achieve major success, to advance black culture forward, this is the guy we’re stuck with?
The new movie is much the same. Ambitious Atlanta prosecutors Josh (Derek Luke) and Linda (Ion Overman) are engaged to be married, when Josh rediscovers an old friend, Candy (ex-Cosby Show daughter Keshia Knight Pulliam), whose life has turned to drug abuse and prostitution. Josh is inexplicably drawn to try to save her, and this throws his relationship into turmoil. What of the title? Yes, Madea’s in this movie, but only in a comedic subplot about her increasing problems keeping her cool, which eventually land her in the slammer. (The funniest scene, unexpectedly, turns out to be a therapy session with Dr. Phil.)
It’s all pretty much as you might expect, except for one scene which briefly threatens to make a good movie out of it. (Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen it!) Josh is confessing to a tough street minister (a captivating Viola Davis) that he took Candy to a party years ago and then left her there, where she was raped. His breakdown confession is given the right weight by Luke, who mines the melodramatic bit for a moment of real pathos about the heavy pain we often carry around. Luke and Davis take the scene seriously, and deliver, and for a moment we’re in the midst of an engaging movie.
And then, as if he realizes he’s gone too far—it’s suddenly too serious, too real—Perry cuts back to Madea clowning. I felt bad for Luke, who wrings as much as he can out of his scene, and manages to honor its essential melodrama (tears and spit flying out of his mouth) and yet to elevate it to something deeper. But as soon as Madea returns, the crowd laughs with relief, and the performance doesn’t get a chance to stick with us. You want to see Perry stretch for something new—you think he’s got it in him—and just when he gives you a taste of it, he runs away.
Still, there’s Madea herself. In the Tyler Perry cosmology, Madea is emerging as the central mythic force, sort of like Yoda … the vital life source around which other characters respond. While I find myself rolling my eyes when she comes back on the screen, I do admire Perry’s creation and embodiment of her. She is fierce and independent, cosmically self-assured, open to the world and its people yet absolutely rigid about her values of self-reliance and forgiveness. In prison, Madea puts her bunkmate, the lesbian Latina serial killer TT (a wacky Sofia Vergara), in her place, but soon they are fast friends. But I wonder how she would have voted on Prop 8?
If this all sounds like damning with faint praise … well, maybe it is. But my ambivalence about Perry’s success has less to do with him—his accomplishments can only be cheered, and he may yet surprise us with a truly superb film—and more to do with a quest for a real African-American cinema that seems increasingly quixotic. Black people have left decisive marks on other art forms, from dance to literature. We have essentially invented American music. But film, despite our growing legacy of fine screen acting, seems to lag behind. Though there aren’t many of them, black filmmakers have ascended into the mainstream, directing dramas, comedies and action movies. In many respects, we are approaching a momentous time, when black and white culture seems more intricately intertwined, when race is not quite such the charged phenomenon it has been for so long.
And yet, the dream of every marginalized group, I like to think, is not merely to find justice and equality with the sources of its oppression—to join the party, as it were—but to somehow transform the art form, transform the culture, to make it something totally new. I don’t know what that would look like, but right now probably not much like Tyler Perry.