Saturday, April 23, 2011

Madea's big unhappy self-loathing













There are a lot of haters of Tyler Perry movies out there.

I am not one of them. With most creative talents who have achieved a certain level of success, I like some of their stuff and dislike some of their stuff. Perry is no exception.

I've seen a good half-dozen (of the 42 or so) Tyler Perry movies as a result of my role as a critic. The informal rule I've come up with is that if they feature a sizeable dose of his Madea character, they are not very good. If Madea appears in small doses or is not present at all, they are much better.

I've only seen one Perry movie with the word "Madea" in the title -- Madea's Family Reunion -- and it's my least favorite Perry movie. It's probably why I avoided Madea Goes to Jail, Madea Goes to Camp, and Madea Scared Stupid.

The movies without so much Madea? Not half bad. One of the best Perry movies I've seen is The Family That Preys, and it has zero Madea in it. It's not high art and it engages in its share of proselytizing, but I liked it.

I also liked Meet the Browns, the movie most responsible for helping me formulate this Madea/non-Madea theory. See, Meet the Browns has almost no Madea in it -- and the one Madea scene is entirely out of left field, having nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Meet the Browns is a fairly typical Perry movie in terms of its agenda, where a family of big-city folks (Angela Bassett and her two kids) find their roots and a family they didn't know they had in rural Georgia, where she develops a love interest in former basketball player Rick Fox. There's plenty of heartfelt stuff, as well as plenty of comedy in the form of Bassett's eccentric extended family. However, for some reason -- marketing -- Perry shoehorns in this random scene in which Madea and her brother Joe (also played by Perry) are involved in a high-speed car chase with the police. Madea's character hasn't been previously introduced (at least not in this movie) and the action doesn't even take place where any of the other characters are -- it's just a total anomaly. This one scene is so ludicrous and over-the-top, not to mention such a violation of the traditional rules of screenplay structure, that it curdled my positive impressions of Meet the Browns from a solid thumbs up to a marginal thumbs up.

It's strange to say this because Madea is clearly the "face of the franchise," to the extent that Perry's movies constitute a franchise. Very few of these movies actually have anything to do with each other, overtly, in terms of their plot. But Madea is in almost all of them, and it's certainly this gun-toting grandma -- Perry dressed in drag -- who's responsible for putting asses in the seats. Sad but true.

Even sadder because she reinforces so many of the stereotypes ascribed to black comics, and by extension, to black audiences.

The "big black man in drag" has always been a bit of a hurtful element of comedy directed at African Americans, which other comedies have tried to lampoon (for example, 30 Rock in its usage of Tracy Morgan). However, that's not really what I want to talk about today. (Thought I wouldn't get there?)

What's got bees in my bonnet today is a simple two-word phrase:

"Good afternoont."

About three weeks ago I first noticed, on a bus stop ad for Madea's Big Happy Family (which releases today), that "Good afternoont" was being pushed as the catchphrase from this movie.

I don't know where to start with the problems I've got with this, but let's try to do it numerically in order from least to most important:

1) It's a pretty dubious practice to promote a movie by one of its catchphrases, especially when the movie hasn't even come out yet, meaning people don't yet know the catchphrase. And it doesn't have to be a bad movie for me to have this problem with it. I remember seeing billboards for Inglourious Basterds, where "That's a bingo!" was being promoted as a catchphrase. I guess that's sort of a funny moment in the movie, but it's not even approaching any kind of summary of the many-splendored glory that is Inglourious Basterds. I say, leave it out of the advertising altogether.

2) "Good afternoont" is not particularly funny -- er, funny at all. The entire joke is that she (we assume it's Madea) says the word "afternoon" with an extra "t" grafted on to the end.

3) And this one kind of relates to #2 -- if that is the only reason it's supposed to be funny, doesn't that mean we are being invited to laugh at dumb black people who can't speak English correctly?

Talk about hurtful stereotypes that have persisted down through time.

Look, I have to admit that I find language-related humor funny. Any sign that's poorly translated from Japanese to English (the entirety of the website www.engrish.com) makes me laugh hysterically. I don't even mind if the joke is related to a black person. I think it's really funny when people do their Mike Tyson impersonations, and they use an impressive four-syllable word in the wrong context. Tyson totally does that. (One of the funniest things about the documentary Tyson, which I otherwise found kind of boring, is that he uses the word "skullduggery" not once, but twice.)

But in the case of Tyson, it's someone misusing a big vocabulary word. Knowing the word in the first place denotes a certain level of intelligence. Who among us can't admit to using words incorrectly from time to time? Even though I'm aware of the problem, my mind still tells me to say "appraise" when I mean to say "apprise." "I'll keep you appraised of my progress." It happens.

But "Good afternoont"? What is it supposed to say about Madea that she says this simple word with an unnecessary additional consonant sound on the end?

More importantly: What does it say about the movie that we are invited to ridicule her and laugh at her for this, and that could be the movie's "best joke"?

Oh, I should tell you -- "Good afternoont" is not the only bad-language catchphrase that's being used to advertise this movie. Some of the outdoor advertisements for Madea's Big Happy Family also have the following catchphrase:

"Hallelujer!"

Urban Dictionary defines this as "the Ebonics version of 'Hallelujah,'" and credits it to Perry and Madea.

Okay, so this one has been around longer -- the Urban Dictionary entry is from 2008. But that doesn't change the fact that it's trying to make hay from a character saying a word wrong. To me it seems to represent not only self-loathing on a fundamental level, but desperation in terms of the the actual content they have on their hands.

Okay, okay, time out to catch my breath and see reason a bit. Perry's defenders would say it's all harmless fun. If you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? Very little about Madea is meant to be taken seriously. Are we really supposed to believe she's carrying a gun around and constantly getting into scrapes with the law? Doubtful. Are we really supposed to believe she thinks being physically violent to children is the only way to "learn 'em"? Let's hope not. Does she really think the word "afternoon" has a "t" on the end? No, of course she doesn't.

Then let's just scale back the argument a bit, and look at that poster up there. If you're driving by a bus stop and you see this movie advertised, and the only thing it gives you other than the title and Madea's smiling face is the phrase "GOOD AFTERNOONT.", do you really want to see that movie?

If I, as a white person, am offended by this, I have to assume there are plenty of black people out there who think that Madea sets them back decades.

Keep making movies, Perry. You have things to say and you make lots of money -- a good combination if you're a filmmaker. It's just time to stop using Madea -- and all the hurtful associations she represents -- as your crutch.

Some people may not agree with me on this, Perry, but you're better than that.

6 comments:

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Having never seen a Madea movie (or any Tyler Perry movie for that matter), I assumed that it's one of Madea's sayings that have popped up in the other movies. That it was an ad designed for those already in the know.

That said, if the point of an ad is to get you to pay attention, bravo to Lionsgate, cause it caught both of our eyes.

Simon said...

I thought that was a typo.

The only Tyler Perry movie I've seen completely is Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which was all over the place--I mean, it goes from weepy melodrama to screwball comedy to legal drama, and I don't know what else--but was fairly entertaining.

Anyway, I assume that catchphrase (y'know, past all that unnecessary ranting I just did) was meant as an inside joke for people who follow the entire franchise.

Travis McClain said...

Funny; I got caught up in an online discussion about the recent Spike Lee vs. Tyler Perry feud just last night. I think there's plenty of room in the entertainment world for the grittier Spike Lee joints to coexist with the comfort food of Tyler Perry's works.

The worst you can say about Perry's films is that they peddle banalities and the humor isn't particularly sharp. Those may be egregious elements for some viewers, but they're neither unique to Perry's filmography nor are they inherently damaging to the African-American community.

If anything, Perry should be applauded for not just becoming successful himself, but for doing it while putting numerous, talented African-American actors in front of the camera who might easily have languished in peripheral roles elsewhere.

Vancetastic said...

DGB,

Yeah, I guess I might have heard Madea say that before. But it's strange to have that phrase be the thing that's supposed to draw you in to the movie. "In space, no one can hear you scream" it isn't.

Simon,

You know, I felt exactly the same thing about Diary -- it was all over the place, but I liked it. I didn't mention it here because it didn't particularly fit my thesis -- there's plenty of Madea in that movie, but it's still good. However, since it was the first, that also means it can easily be the exception to a rule that works for the rest of them.

And, agreed on the inside joke aspect. As mentioned above, though, I still think it's pretty weak.

Travis,

I agree that Perry deserves praise in general -- I meant it when I said in the last sentence that he's better than that. And although many of his films contain mostly non-mainstream black actors, it really is nice to see Angela Bassett pop up in Meet the Browns -- she is just so talented, and I haven't been seeing enough of her recently.

I think the weird thing about his movies is that no, the humor is not very good, but that's actually not the reason I see a Tyler Perry movie. Yeah I might like to laugh a bit, but I really think he does a much better job with drama and social issues than he does with humor. Now, just don't cram so much religion down my throat and I'll be even happier.

izakteaz said...

I think the drama issues are what are most important in the film. The latest movie is more comedic than any of his other films. I hope people don't go in the movie expecting the social issues to be as rough as they were on Family Reunion and I Can Do Bad All By Myself. As usual the play was more in touch with the audience than the film; however still leaves the viewer with a learning lesson behind all the comedic antics we all fell in love with Madea for in the first place...that is the goal that people forget Tyler Perry makes in the first place...a message through comedy and drama.

blackstone said...

Leave it alone Simon, as a White person you will never understand.I'm a black person and it's just too exhausting to explain. Tyler Perry is making films , what are you doing? Got any irons in the cinematic fire that will guarantee work for black actors ?