The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Monday, February 27, 2006

Madea's Family Reunion (2006)

MADEA’S FAMILY REUNION (2006)

If you go to rottentomatoes.com, you’ll see a cross-section of reviews from various print and internet media.  Almost universally, they express something close to contempt for this film written, directed by, produced and starring (in three roles) Tyler Perry.  They must be baffled, disgusted and slightly condescending that it earned thirty million dollars in its first weekend.

This film, which is crude, overwrought, sometimes underwritten, often broadly performed, and made on a TV-movie budget, has plenty to raise the eyebrows.  Melodrama abounds.  Family secrets crawl out from under every overturned rock.  Conflicts are resolved with violence.  Some characters (I am told) are too bad to be true, and others too good.  Matriarchs pontificate and speechify at the drop of a hat, preaching to the audience in a way that would embarrass Spike Lee.  Tyler Perry’s cross-dressing makeup is embarrassingly bad, and simply doesn’t work in screen-filling close-up.
And yet, in its own simple way, it is one of the best, and most courageous, heartfelt, heartbreaking, intelligent, passionate films to ever succeed in Hollywood.

To understand my laugh-out-loud, lump-in-the-throat reaction to this film, you might have to step back to last Thursday, when I attended the premiere of a film called THE SEAT FILLER, starring Duane Martin and Kelly Rowland.  This black romantic comedy was released (or "presented") by The Momentum Experience, the brainchild of producers Nia Hill and D'Angela Steed.  Presented in Los Angeles at the historic El Capitan Theatre, it was more than a movie, it was a multimedia event: We were graced with black-and-white clips of black produced and released films from the past, a live band, tap-dancing, ballet, and the terrific on-stage narration of Blair Underwood (also a star of MADEA).
    During that narration, we were reminded that once upon a time there was something called "The Chitlin’ Circuit," where films made by and for blacks played to enthusiastic crowds. Quoting Ossie Davis, the narration admitted that, yes, they were often crude, and broad, and technologically inept--but the audiences loved them because there, black people saw themselves, not as filtered through white sensibilities, but as lovers, heroes, villains, fools, businessmen, parents--the entire spectrum of life.  The same spectrum of life white folks got every day, for the first time seen through a black lens.

As the methods of distribution consolidated, the Chitlin Circuit died.  Now, there is nothing black that reaches the public without the approval of some white male--and I’m afraid of the implications of that.  I’ve complained in this blog since its inception that black male sexuality is anathema to America.  That Denzel, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Ving Rhames, Samuel Jackson all are loved by America until they drop trou. And then, the box office plummets.  There are other factors too, of course, but this one can be pointed out and proven mathematically--and it is just as demonstrable that black or Asian women can have sex scenes in movies any time they want, but only with white men.  Or else white men won’t go to see it. And there we are, as Multinational corporations buy up more and more of the organs of production and distribution, whose aesthetic do you expect to see expressed?  And don’t blame Hollywood: from time to time they will try to break out of the box, but the audience simply isn’t there.
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The sexual issue is just a marker--don’t think that that’s my real concern.  The concern is the fantastic damage done to black families during 300 years of slavery, damage about which white America remains in an almost complete state of denial. And I can’t blame them: If I were on a winning streak in Vegas, I really wouldn’t want someone to point out that my dice were loaded.  No, I’d want to believe it was my luck, or my superior qualities as a player.  If I had to grasp the  fact that much of my advantage was at the expense of innocent people, well, I might have to do something about it.  And human beings, black or white, really aren’t that fair-minded.
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The destruction done to black families, as I’ve said before, was simply phenomenal.  With the males unable to protect their own females or hold their heads up, women took the lead in the black community in a way that is simply not organic to most human experience.  Statistics suggest that between 15-25% of all American women will be, or have been, the victim of rape or attempted rape.  And this is when the act is illegal, and women are considered valued members of society.  To even TRY to suggest that these numbers would not soar in an environment in which black women could not resist, there was no legal punishment, black men were powerless to protect them, and all food and privilege was controlled by whites, is absurd.  Fifty percent of slave women?  Seventy percent?  And in the decades following slavery, the damage done to the black family by turning the power-structure upside down can be matched by fascinatingly similar damage among any colonized peoples, anywhere in the world.

Look into the health of the family structures among the Maori, the Native Americans, the Irish (during British occupation), South African blacks, or the Chinese during British occupation.  Note the alcoholism and drug abuse, domestic abuse, and general dysfunctionality. During the Watts Riots, I remember white commentators saying: "Why are they destroying their own community?"  Because rage is a mask over fear, and rage wants to destroy.  And if they journeyed outside their own community to destroy what they WANTED to destroy, they would be killed.  So you destroy what is in front of you.  You kill the thing you love.

The twisted female energy, the stifled male energy, turns in upon itself.  You can find the truth of that in studies of any colonized people.  And when those people are stripped of their names, religion, culture, language--and left only with the dominating mythology that they are worthless and worthy of the slavery imposed upon them, followed by the Jim Crow imposed upon them, followed by the segregation imposed upon them--they would have to be superbeings not to be sick in spirit.
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And that is one reality so rarely addressed: That there is a deep sickness.  The other reality, even more infrequently addressed: In spite of that damage, there is love, and joy, and triumph, and success, and healthy sexual union.  This continuum, and the reality that whites will NEVER be able to compensate for what was done--that the healing of the black family MUST come from within--is what Tyler Perry has tapped into. 
Perry honors the black Matriarch, but presents her as a blend of male and female characteristics by playing her in drag. Like Shakespeare, he uses farce, because such broad strokes appeal to his core audience: working-class blacks who, in another day, would have been Chitlin Circuit customers. Denied access to the Hollywood megabucks, the training one gets coming up in the Hollywood system apprenticing under working directors--most of whom are white males--his directing is crude at times.

And he uses that broad-stroke humor, those "clichéd" relationships. (It’s not a cliché if you haven’t seen it applied to your group.  BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN would be utterly cliché if the events took place between a man and a woman.  But America has grasped that the same images of love and hope and need and renunciation, viewed through the lens of a group--male homosexuals--who have never had their internal reality, their inwardness, presented honestly on film before--well, everything old is new again.)  And so it is true of blacks in cinema. “Reunion” distributor Lionsgate deserves its reward for rolling the dice and believing in Tyler Perry's vision.

The reality of our pain and hopes and needs has so rarely been depicted on film.  The life of slaves--so central to understand the current status of black America--has been almost completely washed from cinematic history, despite the vast number of films about the Civil War.  Slavery didn’t exist.  What are you black folks complaining about..?

In MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION, multiple storylines concerning the choices women make are interwoven: a rebellious foster daughter, a woman unable to accept the love of a good man, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, a mother who cannot admit the degree to which her OWN mother’s actions warped her relationships with her daughters.  These threads come together at the titular family gathering, and blossom at a wedding at the end.  In the process, there is great posturing and shouting and hallelujah-ing.

And if you understand the history, if you grasp the amount of pain locked into the black social genetic strand, it is astoundingly cathartic. The truth, that special pain, and a call for responsibility, communication and compassion, all on-screen distributed by a major white studio on white theater screens.  It was US, in all our human warts. With all of the imperfections that making such a film, without the assistance of the countless white artisans who assist each other when Hollywood films are made.  (I remember hearing about how the art director for a "mere" James Bond movie had called Stanley Kubrick, who snuck into the studio to show him how to properly light an internal set!  THAT is the level of resource denied a Tyler Perry.)

This man, coming outside the studio system as he did, dealing with issues that have been ignored for 400 years, showing tissues of black society from top to bottom, appealing to a disenfranchised black audience that Hollywood has fed an endless stream of polished but soulless pap--that Tyler Perry has reached this audience is only a surprise in retrospect. That his audience has broadened beyond this core is a miracle.  That white male critics would put their noses in the air is utterly predictable.

What now?  Hopefully, more narrowly-aimed films of steadily increasing polish.  Do we have our Orson Welles?  What a thought.  Considering how Welles pouted and complained that Hollywood didn’t support him as he thought it should, I’d say that Welles would have been utterly destroyed by the experience of being black.  No, Tyler Perry is no Orson Welles.  But Welles was no Tyler Perry, either.

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