Having just encountered Tyler Perry’s tenth self-directed feature, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family, and his eleventh big screen venture (he didn’t direct the first one), it’s incredible to realize that prior to February of 2005, I had never even heard of a Tyler Perry. That’s about the time the standee for Diary of a Mad Black Woman went up in the lobby of the theater that qualified as my day job. Just glancing at it, I was intrigued by the title and thought this might be something worth checking out. (That translates as “something I wasn’t going to fob off on another reviewer.”) I did notice that the name Tyler Perry was more prominently—and more often—featured than that of the titular director, Darren Grant, and I read up on just who this Perry fellow was.
What I learned was not particularly encouraging to me when I encountered the term “faith-based,” which is not in itself a bad thing—unless you feel the need to call the movie “faith-based” rather than let that aspect stand on its own. I was still curious, and even though I was prepared to find the film to be more disappointing than its title suggested, I wanted to see for myself. I’m glad I did, because I never would have believed it had I not seen the peculiarity of the thing with my own eyes. At the time, I wrote, “This is no mere bad movie. Instead it’s at least three bad movies very loosely tied up in one jaw-droppingly peculiar package.”
Here in part is my original response:
“On the one hand, this film is a made-for-Lifetime style soap opera (actually, several of them). On the other, it’s a lowbrow comedy involving drag acts and really bad character make-ups, with a surprisingly high raunch factor. I say surprisingly high because the film’s purported purpose is to function as some sort of morally uplifting Christian tract.
“Now, apparently there’s a considerable market for this mix, since writer/actor Tyler Perry has made a fortune touring in plays of this sort on the Christian theater circuit. How much of a fortune? Well, the monument-to-conspicuous-consumption mansion (bigger than Tara, but slightly smaller than Versailles) featured in the movie is what Mr. Perry calls home. Obviously, selling the gospel with flatulence, horny old men, dick jokes, vengeful wronged women, outrageous drag queen grandmas and drug humor pays pretty darned well.
“And it’s the sort of mix that’s critic-proof, simply because this is not a movie that’s designed to appeal to people who are interested in movies. Instead, the film’s strictly aimed at Perry’s fan base—and a quick reading of online message boards devoted to Perry and his plays reveals that his adherents don’t differentiate between this attempt at turning one of his plays into a movie and the canned-theater tapings of his earlier appearances for later release in the home-video market. It’s just more Tyler Perry, and apparently that’s enough.”
That still seems about right. So here we are a few years and ten movies later—and I have to say it’s been an interesting journey during which, I’m bound to say, both Mr. Perry and I have learned a few things. He quickly determined that there was really no need to pay for a director (the man is nothing if not thrifty) and took over with his second movie the following year, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion. It really made little difference. And having been burned by allowing critics to screen the first one, he scotched that. That, too, made little difference, since as I noted in the original review, this stuff is critic-proof. Whether critics are fanbase-proof is another matter. (I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of some—shall we say—annoyed fans.)
Madea’s Family Reunion was more ragged than its predecessor—and traded very heavily on the audience’s apparently endless fixation with Perry unconvincingly dragged up as Madea. That fixation baffled me then. I noted at the time, ” Walking out of the Martin Lawrence atrocity Big Momma’s House 2 a few weeks ago, I was interested to hear a number of people not discussing the film at hand, but talking excitedly about the looming prospect of Madea’s Family Reunion. It appears that movies featuring black men in fat-suit drag, dispensing a combination of smart remarks and the collected wisdom of the ages as filtered through Hattie McDaniel (best known as Mammy in Gone With the Wind), Louise Beavers (best known as Aunt Delilah in Imitation of Life) and Moms Mabley (best known as Moms Mabley), fill some kind of long-felt want. Who knew?” It baffles me now, but I’ve come to simply accept it.
With his third outing, Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls (2007), Perry also learned that movies that don’t feature him as Madea—and marginally him as her lecherous, dope-smoking brother Joe—don’t do nearly as well with audiences. That Daddy’s Little Girls—despite solid performances from Idris Elba and the luminous Gabrielle Union—is also the worst and most overstatedly melodramatic movie he’s made may have bearing, since he recovered most of the lost box office ground with Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? in the fall of 2007. (At this point, Perry entered the old Woody Allen realm of having a spring and fall release.) The presence of Janet Jackson and Perry (even if not as one of his trademark characters) likely didn’t hurt.
All the same Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns (2008) was geared to the Madea crowd and featured her in the trailer—only to turn out to be a movie where she didn’t appear till the very end in a cameo setting up Tyler Perry’s Madea goes to jail (2009). That may have had bearing on why it made less money than any of his other movies up to that point except Daddy’s Little Girls And that was too bad, because Meet the Browns was—relatively speaking, since a very little of the Mr. Brown character goes a very long way—a notable improvement over the films that preceded it.
Even greater disinterest greeted his fall 2008 release, Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys, which starred Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates, and was easily his most ambitious movie to date. Yeah, it was mostly the same overripe melodrama with the same ham-fisted messages—and with the usual, troubling doses of “acceptable” domestic (it’s apparently OK if the recipient “had it coming,” you see) violence. But it looked and played more like a “real movie” than the films that came before it. No doubt that Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates had a lot to do with that, but fair’s fair and Perry demonstrated that his command of film as a medium was getting better.
At least that was true until Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail (2009), which was a return to form and formula that provided Perry with his biggest gross ever. It is by no reasonable definition a good film and feels like the most threadbare of all Perry’s films. Even granting that bad—I mean really bad—wigs are virtually a Perry trademark, the ill-fitting red monstrosity perched atop Keshia Knight Pulliam’s head (look to your right) is the clear winner. As usual, there’s a lot of plot for a melodrama that has only the most tenuous connection to Madea, but there was apparently enough of her to make the fans happy—even if it took nearly an hour to get to her. At the time, I noted that the fanbase knows that “Perry is going to do his Madea drag act and that it will be in support of some worthy message wrapped in a melodramatic story. The bad guys—and gals—will be of the mustache-twirling variety. The comedy will be extremely broad. Virtue will be rewarded and God will be name-dropped.”
All that to one side, this is the movie where I came to a stark understanding of what had happened to me by this point—” As I was watching Tyler Perry’s latest movie, Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, my co-critic Justin Souther came into the theater and sat with me for a while. A little way into the proceedings a character entered the film and Justin asked, ‘Is that Tyler Perry, too?’ Without thinking, I said that it was: ‘That’s him in his Brian the lawyer incarnation.’ At that moment, I realized that like some soap-opera fan, I actually know all of Perry’s recurring characters and their relationships to each other. And I was deeply frightened by that. The world of Tyler Perry has—after sitting through seven Perry movies—percolated into my brain. It’s clearly a case of an occupational hazard, me going for best of two falls out of three with a cultural icon—and losing.” As sobering moviegoing moments go, that one ranks high on the list.
The question then arises as to whether I’d been softened up by the time Perry’s fall release Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself, or whether this really is an improvement. I honestly do think that the good things in the movie do represent improvement and some maturation on the part of Perry the filmmaker and dramatist. But I suspect the fact that I actually found myself amused by Madea’s mangled Bible story about “Meshach, Shadrach, and a billy goat” in part because I’d—God help me—grown grudgingly fond of the bogus old gal. I refuse to think too deeply about this.
Perry’s core audience liked Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too (2010) a lot more than I did. My overall feeling then and now is: “Here we appear to have Perry in the ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Fatuous’ mode popularized by Nancy Meyers. He’s got the sets and locations down, but he hasn’t learned to shoot everything like an Architectural Digest layout a la Meyers. This may actually be in Perry’s favor, but the barrage of poorly framed shots and awakward cuts are not. I know Perry can do better than this; I’ve seen it.” It could, of course, be claimed I missed Madea, but the next entry in the Perry oeuvre suggests otherwise.
Perry’s big fall release of 2010 was his film adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, which he merely called For Colored Girls—as much, I think, as a dedication as a title—and for which he didn’t make his name part of the title. Since the budget on the film isn’t readily available, all I can say is that it stands the chance of being the only of his movies to lose money. I hope it didn’t, because it’s far and away the best movie Perry has made. Yes, it’s flawed, and, yes, it succumbs to his penchant for overheated soapy melodrama. It has moments—substantial ones—that I wouldn’t hesitate to call brilliant, and for all its flaws, I think it’s a film that ought to be seen. This isn’t the work of a preachy playwright making a movie. This is the work of a true filmmaker. And I wish it had been seen such, but it mostly wasn’t and I doubt we’ll ever see its like again.
It’s not surprising that this begat the new Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family, which I won’t get into here, since I’m reviewing it this week. But where does this leave me as concerns the Tyler Perry filmography? Well, I couldn’t be called a fan. I find some of the attitudes in the films—especially concerning domestic abuse—disturbing. I do not find anything intrinsically funny about a six-foot-five man in unconvincing granny drag. Neither do I find the curious Madea dialect funny. I mostly just find it weird (I’ve never actually heard anyone say “Hellur” for “Hello”). Then there’s the clunky sermonizing, the mugging, the shrill tone, the ripe melodrama, and several other things that don’t make me look forward to the next one.
However, I’ve probably reviewed more Tyler Perry films between 2005 and now than those by any other filmmaker. That has more to do with his incredibly prolific nature than anything else. At the same time, I always find him interesting as a cultural phenomenon and I sometimes find him interesting as a filmmaker. Certainly, I find him more interesting to discuss than Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich (to name a couple). But overall, I’ve simply made peace with Tyler Perry (he may feel differently) in my own mind. At worst, I’ve started viewing him much as I might an eccentric relative who shows up for a couple of hours twice a year—someone you humor while he’s there and excuse when he leaves with an “oh, he’s just like that” and maybe a little head-shaking. He’s the kind of improbable fellow you end up liking if only because you couldn’t make him up if you tried.