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:
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:
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.