Marching in the Shadow of MadeaMarching in the Shadow of Madea
Your neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking. He keeps you up at night. You’ve already talked to the owner. Sure, you could dial 311 … or strut into that yard with a six-barrel handgun. Any person acquainted with Tyler Perry’s Madea already knows what the irascible matriarch would do.
The chain-smoking, gun-in-purse toting Southern fictional personality, Mable Simmons, aka Madea — “M to the damn D-E-A!” — is played in drag by the 6’6” acclaimed director, Tyler Perry, who dons everything from the memory of menopause to faux hips for the role. So in addition to writing, producing and directing nearly all of the films and plays of his Atlanta-based media empire, Perry also steals the spotlight.
It’s hard not to appreciate Tyler Perry’s underdog story. He survived sexual abuse as a child, did some soul-searching with a pen and pad (and dash of Oprah), and, at 22 years old, used his life savings to finance his first musical at a community theater. He is now one of the most prominent black directors in Hollywood. But for some critics, Madea’s rise is a bitter pill to swallow.
Perry is attacked by mainstream critics and movie-goers (few productions of the Madea line have ever reached a 50% Rotten Tomato watermark) for plots that are as dysfunctional as the families they portray. But for the life-hardened Madea who unflinchingly takes on a SWAT team and slips out of her house arrest bracelet by buttering her ankle, saving a mediocre Perry film from financial collapse is just another bump in the road. It seems that as long as Madea still believes in whoop-ass and using her glock to get even, the following that has been growing in theaters around the nation will still believe in her.
But to the dismay of some, director Spike Lee commented that Perry’s work harked back to Andy ‘n’ Amos, the popular 1920’s radio and television program that entertained white communities by ridiculing blacks. With careless stock stereotypes at every corner of Madea’s world — the vicious baby mama, the elderly black man who flaunts mispronounces words — her arrival to the big screen brings with it a challenge she didn’t have to face in her scripts: being misunderstood.
When Perry’s films are made in Hollywood, they’re juxtaposed with films that uphold a history of racial “othering.” Even today, most Hollywood films use non-white cultures as backdrops for a white hero to exploit and then dismiss. Not to mention the existing dearth of acting roles open to minorities in general. The New York Times called 2010 one of the whitest years for Hollywood. So while Lee and others have a legitimate concern about Madea perpetuating negative cultural images, perhaps there’s more fault with a vast viewership that already indulges stereotypes than Perry’s careless hand at comic relief.
Tyler Perry and Madea’s break into the entertainment industry is edifying. Granted, there are still plenty of unforgivable slights. Any feminist out there has an unquenchable desire to call Madea, ask her to bring her glock, and meet Tyler Perry at his house to explain to him that not all distressed woman need male rescue. But Perry and Madea have a lesson a post-imperialist, tiredly post-modern world should learn: justice is outrageous. It’s wildly dramatic and improbable. It takes off its earrings, does what it has to do to the woman who stole your parking spot at K-mart, then runs like hell. Sure, critics can say Perry’s intensely broken families are exaggerated and shouldn’t stand as representative for any culture, and they’re right. But they’re also missing Perry’s point, which has always been that these families and this pain exist and need to be shown. Madea may moralize on end, but she does it to heal people. She may wield chainsaws, but if half the couch is yours, well, then, half of it is yours.
I’m writing this article because with the perpetuation of Tea Party racism and with a cultural war that our president claims isn’t against Islam but seemingly is, I’m tired of finding my tongue in check. As wrecked as our world is, Tyler Perry and Madea continually struggle to paint a reality that’s better — that’s livable for everyone, and that may not exactly be healed but is healing. Without that vision anywhere on the nearest ballot, I think it’s time Madea takes on an even bigger audience. She deserves her own channel. But at the very least, give the woman a better producer.