Tyler Perry directs and produces films that guarantee money in the bank. His distributor certainly thinks so — Lionsgate studio, heard uttering the incantation, “Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry,” recently renewed their contract with him. With his films bringing in an estimated $520 million, he may well be the studio’s favorite cash cow.
However, his success has been strictly in financial terms and in his popularity only lies with his core audience of African-American viewers. Perry’s films have been subject to widespread savaging from critics, many of whom are African-American, for, among other things, his portrayal of black people. The most recognizable and vocal of his critics, director Spike Lee, has accused him of perpetuating negative stereotypes. Lee said back in 2009, “Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors, but I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery.” Their feud is back on the front burner again this week with the release of Perry’s latest, Madea’s Big Happy Family. And Perry, no shrinking violet, fired back, “I am sick of him talking about black people going to see movies. This is what he said: ‘you vote by what you see,’ as if black people don’t know what they want to see.”
Good or bad, neither the critics nor Spike Lee has prevented the thick-skinned director from bringing back what his demographic want to see: The controversial, tough-loving grandmother, Madea, as the lead character in a new family dramedy.
Madea’s (Perry) family is big — and ever growing. Walk down the street and turn the corner, and you’ll bump into another relative. I’ve lost track of all the daughters, sons, brothers, and nephews that comprise her close-knit extended family. Perry isn’t a stickler for details or continuity, so my advice is to disregard the improbable timeline and family tree and just go along for the ride.
In Madea’s Big Happy Family, the relative in distress this time around is her niece Shirley (Loretta Devine) — her fractious adult children and their respective spouses and partners are in serious need of straightening out. Also, the gentle Shirley wants the family to come together so she can make an important announcement — she is dying of cancer. She calls upon Madea, the only person capable of rounding up everyone and hopefully fixing what’s broken. All of which the no-nonsense Madea needs to dispatch in the space of 106 minutes.
Shirley’s family, it turns out, has big problems, and among them are revealed secrets of a past rape, an illegitimate child, marital discord, a child custody battle, and a parolee on the verge of returning to drugs. This is standard Perry fare. Nothing and no one ever grows or advances in Madea’s fictional universe; she and they are stuck in a loop, going round and round.
Yet, I’m still a Perry fan, though not for his abilities as a director and writer. His films are formulaic, the plots recycled, and the roles are caricatures instead of genuine characters. Perry is sadly lacking as an artist and likely to remain so if he chooses to stay happily locked within the confines of his established shtick.
No, I’m a fan because I love Madea. She makes me laugh, loud and often. Yes, I won’t argue she represents a stereotype and even a caricature. Maybe that says something unflattering about me. I love hearing her unleash her singular verbal assaults on her hapless family and those innocent bystanders who wander accidentally into her path. I also appreciate Perry as an actor, at least as far as his portrayal of Madea is concerned. Perry isn’t doing drag nor is he relying on imitation. No, Perry inhabits this feisty granny in such a way as to make oddly believable a character that is unbelievable.
And just when I think it’s time to retire the energetic septuagenarian Madea, Perry brings her back funnier than ever. If only time wasn’t suspended in her world but allowed to move forward per the laws of physics. If only Perry would establish a definitive family tree that didn’t allow for new relatives to pop up conveniently as the mood strikes. If only he would explore with unvarnished honesty the very tragic circumstances facing his characters rather than exploiting their issues for dramatic and surface effect. If only he would create complex characters rather than stick with the one-notes he normally pens. If only he could tolerate an unhappy ending or even an ambiguous one, or even one in which the threads aren’t neatly tied up before the credits roll. Maybe the Madea franchise could be improved or reinvigorated. Maybe. But probably not.