Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
Well, now I know who Tyler Perry is. Last Friday I published a negative one-star review of “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” and since then I have received more e-mails than about any review I have ever written, out numbering “Fahrenheit 9/11”and “The Passion of the Christ” put together. And they were not all the same message, generated by some web site or its followers. Each manifestly came from an individual reader who felt moved to write.
Some sent references to a recent National Public Radio report on Perry, “America’s most successful unknown playwright.” Others referred me to the movie’s extraordinary message board at Yahoo – where, after more than two months in release, “Being Julia” has generated 52 messages and an average grade of C-plus, and “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” after four days in release, has more than 2,100 messages and a grade of A-minus.
Many of the messages say versions of the same thing: White critics don’t get it. We don’t know who Tyler Perry is, we have never heard of the millions of dollars his plays have grossed all over America, in theaters, churches, school halls and on DVD, and – most of all – we don’t know that characters like his Madea are based on strong black women the writers are all familiar with.
To back up a second: “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” which opened Friday and will win the box office contest this week with an estimated gross over $25 million, is a movie starring Kimberly Elise as Helen, the wife of a rich African-American attorney (Steve Harris). After 18 years of marriage and verbal abuse, he dumps her for another woman (Lisa Marcos) who has two kids – all the more painful, because her miscarriages were caused by his mistreatment.
The movie, up to this point, is a strong family drama that had engaged my sympathy. Then Helen flees into the arms of her grandmother, Madea, played in drag by playwright Tyler Perry, who (I quote myself) “is built along the lines of a linebacker … a tall, lantern-jawed, smooth-skinned, balloon-breasted gargoyle with a bad wig, who likes to wave a loaded gun and shoot test rounds into the ceiling.” Madea visits the cheating husband’s house to destroy his furniture with a chain-saw.
I ended: “I've been reviewing movies for a long time, and I can't think of one that more dramatically shoots itself in the foot.”
Other critics agreed with me. At rottentomatoes.com, where only 23 of 78 critics liked the film, we read:
* "This isn't a situation in which the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing. It's more like they're not even part of the same body." -- Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News
* "A crudely made hodgepodge of rank clichés that veers between shrill melodrama, glossy soap opera, and broad, sitcom-level comedy." -- Timothy Knight, Reel.com
* "Stay clear of this mess." -- Lou Lumenick, New York Post
* “Sure, I laughed. Yes, I cried. But mostly I just wanted to throw up.” – Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post
* "Blows to the head are delivered with more subtlety than the message of ‘Diary of a Mad Black Woman'." -- Wesley Morris, Boston Globe
All clueless white critics? No, Morris is an African-American, who knows who Tyler Perry is and compares Madea to Martin Lawrence’s character in “Big Momma's House.” He adds, “Perry's brand of touring '’urban’ theater has made him a star in black America. I've seen a couple of his shows on DVD while waiting to get my hair cut at the barbershop. On the stage, their overall hamminess wears down your resistance, and the frisky interplay with the live audience makes them passable fun. A precise double take is always good for a big laugh. But there's nothing precise about the movie that director Darren Grant has made of '’Diary’."
The e-mails I’ve received are more direct: As a white man, I’m told, I am clueless to understand that strong older women, who have had to be tough to survive in hard times, are familiar in all African-American families, and do not conform to the genteel manners of the art-house crowd. More than one writer, especially on the Yahoo message boards, calls me and other critics of the film racist. “Y U B Hating?” is one headline. Demon2002 writes: “Look some of you really need to stop (white people) especially those of you with your racist comments about all blacks in the ghetto. I'm willing to bet my entire direct deposit pay, which is probably substantially more than many of you will see in three months that you didn't see this movie… I hate that home computers have been made so accessible in price that the lower class and closed-minded whites are spewing foolishness across the net.”
Deborah Young of Overland Park, Kansas, was friendlier and more helpful in a message direct to my Answer Man column: “Sure, Madea is an exaggeration. At the same time, there's a lot about Madea that rings true for me. As an African-American woman, I've seen many tamer versions of Madea, women who refused to settle for anything less than their birthrights (respect, consideration and fair treatment). Sometimes these women can get a little rough, knock some heads together, so to speak, but they can be endearing as well. It's clear that other black viewers share my views. Tyler Perry's touring stage plays and DVDs have grossed millions. Why? Because black audiences can identify with Madea. They recognize her as a larger-than-life version of some of the no-nonsense, good-hearted aunts, mamas or grannies they've known and loved.”
At a pre-Oscar party honoring Ebony’s 60th anniversary last Thursday, I talked with producer Reuben Cannon, whose credits include the wonderful “Down in the Delta” and “The Women of Brewster Place.” At the Indie Spirits, I talked with Kimberly Elise. They also worked together on “Woman, Thou Art Loosed” (2004), based on a screenplay and co-starring Bishop T. D. Jakes, another icon of the black community not widely known to whites. That was a much better movie, proving (as “Diary” and “Beloved” do) that Elise is a gifted actress. But it has no Madea, and grossed $6.7 million domestically, a figure “Diary” passed on its opening day.
Cannon and Elise were awfully nice to me, under the circumstances. Perhaps the fact that their movie was #1 at the box office helped. Cannon knew about my review but wasn’t angry. He said “Diary” was intended as a mixture of genres, a movie that would defy convention. They were aware when they made it that Madea was on a different reality level than the other characters, but the formula had been wildly popular in productions of Perry’s plays, and they wanted the film to capitalize on the enormous popularity of Perry and (especially) Madea.
I have re-read my original review, and see no need to change a word. It expresses what I think about “Diary,” and a critic is worthless if he starts writing what he thinks his readers want to read. He becomes the dummy and his readers become ventriloquists.
But the outpouring of dissent about “Diary” has me thinking in another direction. The assumption beneath my review was that a movie should discover the correct tone for its material, and stick to it. I was grabbed at the outset by the plight of the Kimberley Elise character, was moved by her despair, was touched by the character of her mother, played by Cecily Tyson, and I recoiled every time Madea came charging in like a train wreck.
Yet the most successful film industry on earth, India’s Bollywood, deliberately mixes genres. “You get everything in one film,” my Mumbai friend Uma de Cuhna told me. “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” provides melodrama, romance, scandal, the escapism of a lavish lifestyle, a message of forgiveness, and the larger-than-life Madea, whose pot-smoking doesn’t seem to bother the Christian church audiences who make up a large part of Perry’s fan base.
It’s not supposed to be all of a piece, told with a consistent tone. It’s more like a variety show. And Madea is no more supposed to be a “real” African-American grandmother than Dame Edna Everage is supposed to be a “real” Australian housewife.
Okay, I get it. I refuse to accept the theory that I am racist because I disliked the film (many of the Yahoo messages attack the notion that racism belongs in the discussion). But I do realize that Tyler Perry is under the radar of the white-dominated media, and that the loss of Elvis Mitchell at the New York Times leaves us with only a handful of black critics (Morris, Desson Thomson at the Washington Post, Armand White at the New York Press, and 3BlackChicks.com, for example). Doesn’t it seem like there ought to be more mainstream black film critics than black Oscar nominees?
Unfortunately, White, Thomson and all three black chicks have not reviewed the film, and it’s by no means certain that Mitchell would have praised it. In the New York Press, White’s stablemate Matt Zoller Seitz writes: “This may prove to be a slow-building cult phenomenon that endures withering pans but lingers in theaters for weeks, eventually forcing the same critics who dismissed it to write think-pieces explaining its success.”
The ink is scarcely dry on his review, and here I am, doing just that. Do I think I failed “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” in my duty as a critic? No, because (1) I told you honestly what I thought about it, and (2) I provided a good idea of what’s in the movie, so that readers can decide they’d like it even if I didn’t. My crime seems to have been disliking Madea. But I don’t dislike her – I simply can’t stand her in this movie. I would like to see Kimberly Elise in a serious drama that gives range to her considerable gifts, and Madea in a comedy. But not in the same movie, please.
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