Saturday, March 12, 2005

Diary of a Mad Black Woman: An Afro-Christian Bourgeois Fantasy

Last night I saw the new film that's garnering considerable attention--critical brickbats and popular acclaim--Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman. (I keep wanting to type Blackwomyn!) A lot of the discussion of this film so far has centered on its opening weekend take, which was over $30 million, and Perry's prior popularity (and success, to the tune $75 million in receipts for his plays) primarily among Black audiences. In America, capital is king, er, president. But Perry is a hugely successful playwright, and Diary's box-office success is noteworthy. Also, Perry deserves more attention in the wider media culture; any white artist drawing as many fans and banking as much loot would be roundly celebrated by now (cf. Thomas Kinkade). To that end, he has now appeared on "Oprah" touting the movie, and I imagine it's only a matter of time before more of his plays and screenplays hit the big screen, with Hollywood's backing.

So what did I think? Well, let's start with the good. Perry's humorous portrayal of Madea (M'Dear), a quasi-archetypal, quasi-stereotypical Black Southern grandmother, made me laugh out loud more than once. Perry-Madea, in fact, carries the movie, and when s/he's on screen it's 100 times more interesting than when she's not. She packs a gun, cusses up a storm, cuts off her ankle-tracking bracelet, chainsaws her philandering grandson-in-law's furniture...I often found myself wanting a remote to fast-forward through the...well, I get to that the scenes featuring Madea. In fact, I realized half-way through the film that I wished Perry had completely structured the film around Madea, sort of like Martin Lawrence's Big Momma's House, Diarywhose traces lay all over this film, though Perry appears far more comfortable in his role and drag than Lawrence did: he is Madea, and I say this with praise. (He even appeared more at home as Madea than he did as the straight, devout grandson character.) Moreover, Madea's character served as a counterweight to the moralism of the rest of the film. In fact, she openly mocked the Bible and couldn't make it to church, a marvelous little touch of subversion I wish Perry had explored more. I hope a bona-fide Madea: The Movie (not just the videos he's already issued) is coming soon, and that in it Perry really lets loose.

Then, there was the performance of actress Kimberly Elise, in the lead role of Helen. She thoroughly worked what little she was given, managing to create a real and affecting character out of something far more stock and romance-novelish. I haven't seen a Black actress so lovingly and beautifully captured--and here I mean in sheer visual terms--on film in some time. Watching Kimberly Elise move through this role made me wish that there were more vehicles for the talented Black actresses (and other actresses of color) out there. Plus, Shemar Moore, with his beard and (fake?) cornrows, certainly looked delectable, and I'm not a big Moore fan. But he looked good and pressed his acting talents to their limits, which counts for something.

Now, for the bad: The movie was a tissue of clichés, with a hole-riddled plot which featured a number of implausibilities. (The court-shooting scene, however, was scarily prescient given the events of the last few days.) Maybe there are smart, attractive Black women who feel incapable of doing anything, but I have yet to meet one, so I totally could not buy this aspect of the Helen character's predicament. The script was often treacly (though some of the actors worked hard to overcome it), sentimental and melodramatic, bubblegummed up with trite dialogue. At times Diary, rather than echoing or riffing on other films, felt like like a bad patchwork quilt of them (The Nutty Professor, Misery [which was actually mentioned--as if we wouldn't get it...], Big Momma's House, etc.), and it didn't seem sure as to what sort of film it wanted to be. Many of its characterizations (the crazy old uncle, the drug dealer, the crackhead prodigal wife/daughter, etc.) verged on or were stereotypical--and not merely archetypal--to the point of approaching minstrelsy. On the other hand, the portrayals of reality were utterly fantastical (that was the cleanest "hood" outside of Los Angeles that I've ever laid eyes on!). On top of all this, it was annoyingly moralistic and evangelical--to the point of including a song that backslapped Buddhism and Islam, mind you!--and preachy. At more than one point, it was clear that although a even semi-sentient being could have grasped that it aimed to be a kind of Christian fairy tale (yep, irony alert), the scriptwriters still felt the need to have the characters actually mention the words "fairy tale" more than once. Thank you, we're all that stupid, come again.

More on the moralism. Now, I did spend a good part of my youth in Christian churches (Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.), so I'm quite familiar with the Bible and Holy Scripture, and I would imagine many of Perry's fans are too. So why was it necessary to hammer the viewer over the head with doctrine, to have characters uttering such obviously banal and dogmatic lines? At times, I couldn't help but laugh when these Sunday School moments came up, though the moment when Kimberly Elise's character noted in her diary that her "good Christian" proletariat (hmm....) rescuer, Orlando (Moore), gave her something better than lovemaking, he gave her "intimacy," pricked my ears: this expansive view of "intimacy" and tenderness struck me as one of the most interesting, non-Madea moments on screen. Because in fact what does "intimacy" really mean, even outside a Christian framework? What sorts of deep, spiritual, affectionate yet non-copulative, non-genital relations are possible between people, and why is it so difficult for our society, at least the adults among us, to address this topic without moralism? I don't think Perry was going there, but it fascinated me.

In truth, I admit to being ambivalent this movie. Why? Because although I could connect with it to a great degree based on my background and past experiences (or as Bourdieu might say, my shared habitus noir with its target audience), it felt at times almost like watching a foreign film. The hypercommercialism and bourgeois values at its heart; the moralism and prudery; the fantastic aspect of the romance; its redemptive trajectory and sappy happy ending--all of these elements felt alien to me and my life today. Well, not exactly alien, but I can't approach them uncritically, especially not in post-9/11, post-November 4, 2004 African-America. Though I know where the film is coming from and what it aims to do, Diary offers almost no intellectual or aesthetic challenges, especially at this moment of societal crisis, and Lord knows, right now we need some. It was, really, an intermittently funny, sometimes tedious, usually soap-operaish, but beautifully filmed Afro-Christian bourgeois fantasy. Thing is, this is definitely not my thing.

I cannot help but think of this film in light of Charles Burnett's 1990 treasure, To Sleep with Anger, a lambent but sadly underappreciated film that dealt, in an unforgettable way, with the complexities of a Black family's relationships, faith and the spirit (including the supernatural). The comparison made me lament that there aren't more works of the level of Burnett's artistry (or at least striving for it) and so many of the Diary kind. I applaud Perry's success and yes, I know, sometimes it's important to give the people what they want (and I'm not such a snob that I can't enjoy comedy of the likes of Friday or Barbershop, whatever criticisms I have of them). Or as my friend and fellow poet Tony Medina once harshly wrote, "Do the people love it?" Sometimes the answer is an unambiguous "No," and that's not a bad thing either.


  1. I appreciate what you're saying here, John, and I'm glad you can be at least ambivalent about Diary, because I haven't felt that I could even go see it. But I don't know where you're going with To Sleep with Anger. Certainly, it does not strive to be 'accessible', in the way that Diary does, but can we say that the people don't love it when it seems that they haven't even been given the chance? I mean, I never saw Danny Glover promoting it on Oprah (or Arsenio, or whatever). So the question is how to get the kind of complex, beautiful films we love past the entertainment industry's way of doing things . . .


  2. You make an excellent point, Rogue, but I do remember Danny Glover and others talking it up, yet it and its director, Charles Burnett, who has consistently made outstanding films, got so little studio backing or support. But Burnett is fairly soft-spoken and not a media hound, so I mean, are we to blame him in part? I don't want to, but must we all be topflight salespeople as well. Outside of its director, the film, which fell outside the media's usual frameworks for black films, too little critical discussion. How do we change that? It's a real problem.

    I think I proposed it as a counterweight to this film, which has provoked vehement support, from what I can tell, because it's a "black" film and its director is Black, and less from any real sense of being a work of any quality--either as art or entertainment. Or both. How to get around Hollywood--that remains a question. In my fantasy world, all children would get to see Burnett's "The Killer of Sheep," among other films, by 9th grade, as a way of countering the influence of Hollywood's/the media conglomerates' warping of the notion of what good films are and can be--and also as a counter to the steady industrialization of our consciousnessess, our imaginations, our imaginaries.