19 January 2012

TYLER PERRY, A PROLOGUE: DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN (2005)

It's really kind of odd when you reflect on it, given how much the man has become a national point of reference, but a mere seven years ago, white people had no idea who the hell Tyler Perry was. Leastways, I did not, nor did my white people friends. This fact is, and should be, taken as a sign of the pronounced disconnect in how Americans of different skin tones take in culture (as is the related fact that Perry's movies continue to make shitloads of money despite no white person seeing them, nor knowing other white people who see them), but I am not going to spend this retrospective talking about race in America as filtered through Perry's cinema, a subject that I am not qualified to discuss at that kind of level, though I will note that if I were going to talk about that, I'd probably fall in line with Spike Lee's famous disparagement of Perry's shtick as "coonery".

No, mostly I'm just trying to give some context to the fact that when the teaser poster for Diary of a Mad Black Woman first popped up in late 2004, I was one of many people who had no idea what the words "Tyler Perry's" over the title meant. Just one of those dozens of cases where a book I'd never heard of that lots of people liked had been turned into a film, I assumed. Regardless, it was quite an appealing teaser, with a bold use of bright purple and a really lovely bit of subtlety to the design. Go back and take a look at the top of this review, tell me that I was wrong: if you didn't know what the movie was about, that teaser would be enough to make you think that it's a graceful, atmospheric character study. Or at least trying to be.

Then the second poster came out, and it looked like this:

I stopped expecting a graceful character study.

(Weirdly, several subsequent Perry films have used the same "classy teaser"/"godawful, broadly comic one-sheet" marketing strategy).

We know better now, of course, and that's what seven years' worth of perspective does for you. "Graceful", is of course not a word customarily used to describe anything that Perry touches, and the somewhat outraged bad reviews it received on its initial release - it still holds the lowest scores on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic of any of the author's features - are perhaps due to shock on the part of the critics of the day (who, being typically white and cosmopolitan, would probably have been about as ignorant of the man as I was), completely flummoxed by the whatever-the-hell in front of them.

And, admittedly, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, adapted from Perry's 2001 play, is what-the-hell sort of movie if ever such a thing existed, jamming together not two but three separate genres that probably should have remained that way: a dementedly melodramatic love story about the titular woman, Helen (Kimberly Elise), who is kicked the curb with outsized glee by her scuzzy, cheating, corrupt lawyer husband, Charles (Steve Harris); a staggeringly broad drag farce centered on Helen's grandmother, Madea (Tyler Perry himself, but you almost certainly knew that), who takes the sad-eyed woman in and teaches her the ways of self-assurance; and, in a staggeringly sharp third-act turn, a public service announcement for Southern black Christianity. Not an apologetic. Not a missionary piece. Perry seems entirely unconcerned with the viewer who is not already fully invested in his brand of faith; he is, rather, reminding all of the people who already agree with him how they are meant to behave in a world that frequently tries their faith.

To be fair, the Christian message movie and the absurd melodrama fit together reasonably well, insofar as the spectacular mustiness of the main plot can fit together with anything that addresses life in America in the 21st Century. Problems are introduced, character crises are set in motion, not just for Helen but for virtually everyone she knows, those crises are solved at a big, noisy church service, and they are solved with a literal deus ex machina - the minute that the characters remember that God is there for all their woes, they stop being sad. That however many people, three or four anyway, would have this revelation at the exact same time strains credibility, but on the other hand, everything about Diary of a Mad Black Woman is so blatantly and pridefully artificial that it almost wouldn't fit if it didn't end on a huge contrivance. The film is, in essence, a modern day version of the medieval theology plays that presented simple situations in blindingly obvious colors and resolved them with big, showy gestures. Subtlety? Fuck subtlety. And as much as that means that Diary feels massively broken (and, in truth, probably is massively broken), I admire its commitment to itself.

Speaking of fuck subtlety: Madea. Holy God. Even when you know what you're getting into, it's hard to be ready for it. Madea does not fit into the rest of the film, in any way whatsoever: only the scenes where she banters, i.e. screams invective at, her brother Joe, mostly because Joe is also played by Tyler Perry in a nightmare of latex. But at least Joe resembles a cartoon version of a human being. Madea resembles nothing at all: not least because Perry's onscreen performance of a character he'd introduced five years earlier in a play titled I Can Do Bad All By Myself (which was, eventually, turned into a movie) ranks among the all-time worst drag performances in history, even counting the ones that are deliberately bad, like Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot. Spike Lee and other media theorists have argued that Madea sets the whole of African-American society back to the '20s, by presenting a degraded view of black femininity and dignity (a view refuted by people like Oprah, and I mean, shit, if you can't trust Oprah...), and this is perhaps true; there is something extra-toxic about Madea that just isn't there in things like The Klumps or Big Momma's House. Perhaps it is that Madea seems genuinely violent and dangerous.

However, I must break from Lee and his colleagues by arguing that Madea isn't just an insult to black dignity, but to the humanity of all people: she, if I can use that word fairly of such a genderless monstrosity, is anti-funny and anti-charming and anti-life in every possible way. It is no accident that of all the characters who find Christ at the end, even the ones who aren't remotely plausible (the film tries is damnedest to sell us Charles's conversion to the side of good; this might have possibly worked if it hadn't done so well making him a one-dimensional psychopathic sleazebag), Madea ends with as little respect for God or church as anybody in the film has ever demonstrated. And we're meant to love her, adore her all to pieces; this doesn't seem to be a tension Perry is remotely aware of.

In the face of Madea, all of the film's other problems don't seem like such a big deal: the subplot with Helen's hunky new beau, Orlando (Shemar Moore), who is actively stripped of all agency that extends further than "be the prop in Helen's rebirth, present exactly when she needs you, with no personality of your own", for example, or the mind-boggling ten minutes when, from out of nowhere, Helen shifts into torture porn mode to get revenge on Charles. Through out all of this, Elise remains the one thing that is constantly good, playing the decent, rich humanity in her character when she is able, and simply pretending that it's still there when it's not. Nobody else survives the script's reduction of their characters, not even Cicely Tyson in a small role as Helen's mother.

No does director Darren Grant survive; if I have not mentioned him before this moment, it's because he doesn't seem to matter very much, except in a negative way (he's done hardly anything in the years since). This was the only Tyler Perry Company production, of the only Tyler Perry screenplay, not directed by Tyler Perry, and there is a distinct sense of the director not having a handle on the material: the tonal shifts (which are many) clang against one another, and the performances do not connect to each other in any meaningful way, and the whole affair is the worst possible combination of visually and emotionally flat, and comically vile. I do not know that a stronger hand, with a better sense of what was supposed to be happening, would have saved Diary of a Mad Black Woman; but then, that is the journey we are about to take, straight into the heart and soul of the movies Perry himself made, to his own specifications.

3 comments:

Will said...

Liking the "here be monsters" tag :D

jjjonatron said...

I am peeing my pants excited for this review series. I've only seen Diary of a Mad Black Woman, but that was enough to sour me of any Tyler Perry movie to come around. But my curiosity about how his other films compare to Diary has always been prevalent in my mind whenever another one goes into production, and who better to describe their terrors than the genius of Tim! Tears of joy!

Tim said...

I mean, I surely hope it will be pants-wettingly good, but I've only seen a couple of the other entries between here and there, so I can't swear how far I'll make it before I run out of insights. But I promise to do my best, and to treat the movies with my utmost gravity.

Will- I was rather proud of that grace not, can't lie.