Tyler Perry and the Business of ‘Madea’
For the uninitiated, her name is Mabel M. Simmons, but she is more widely known as “Madea,” the black female geriatric star of both screen and stage. Writer, producer, and director Tyler Perry performs the character, which debuted during a series of stage performances essentially geared toward black female Christian Protestant audiences in the 1990s.
The South Park episode, “Funnybot,” features “Token,” the only black kid in the show’s all-white town, laughing at Madea’s antics and mindlessly giving her money admitting, “I can’t help myself.” America’s first black president, Barack Obama, is also satirized in the same episode professing a similar and “embarrassing” addiction to Perry’s films. But ultimately Obama’s character declares Madea to be a threat to all of mankind; then he entombs her, sealing her away forever in the earth’s bowels.
So who is Madea, exactly, and why would folks care to pose her (albeit satirically, in this instance) as a threat?
Diary of a Mad Black Woman was Perry’s first theatrical film release in February 2005, and he has since churned out nearly one film each year: Madea’s Family Reunion, released February 24, 2006; Meet the Browns, released March 21, 2008; Madea Goes to Jail, released February 20, 2009; I Can Do Bad All by Myself, released September 11, 2009; Madea’s Big Happy Family, released April 22, 2011.
Perry’s new film, Madea’s Witness Protection is set for release June 29th, and it stands to be the most innovative of the Madea film franchise—Not! Here’s why.
South Park playfully hints at the controversy surrounding Perry’s Madea. Surely comedic innovators, like South Park producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, take issue with the aesthetic vapidity that arguably plagues Madea films. However, the debate concerning Madea, and Tyler Perry in general, involves broader cultural implications chiefly concerning those whom Perry’s films regularly portray—African Americans.
There are those who feel that Perry has taken us all back to the woeful days of Mantan Moreland and Stepin Fetchit, with his conceivably buffoonish characterizations and relentless stereotypes of black people.
But for Perry’s dedicated fan base, he can do no wrong. Many of his supporters insist that his characters are funny and that Perry employs people of color who have historically been denied access to substantial Hollywood roles. But are these actors any better off? Consider his films’ signature attributes.
The Madea franchise plausibly perpetuates anxiety-causing issues among black people that have existed since systematic slavery began: colorism, classism, self-hatred, sexual and physical abuse, poor education, ruptured bloodlines, identity crises, etc.
The films’ few white characters are often normalized to such an extent that they are barely noticeable in comparison to the stereotypically violent, loud, and cockamamie black character types. As an example, take the commonly portrayed young, gum-popping, finger-snapping black female Saphirre types, who, by film’s end, usually submit to a formerly timid black male character that learns to control her (through violence or by some other savage means).
Madea is a chain-smoking, weapon-toting, foul-mouthed matriarch who is always presented with a gamut of problems, self-inflicted or not. She then endeavors to solve these problems through outrageous means. Madea resists any hint of social power bankruptcy as a single black older woman by crashing through store windows, vandalizing private property, and assaulting anyone in her path (including law enforcement officers) to get her aimless points across.
Madea looks as outrageous as she behaves. Most noticeable are the disorderly dangling breasts that droop past her waistline (if you can find it). Her overweight frame is often draped in hideously patterned house dresses even when she is outside of her home trumping someone’s “baby-daddy,” evading police, or insulting judges during her all too frequent arraignment hearings.
Through Madea, Perry has also constructed his own brand of sanctified Ebonics. As with many of Perry’s characters, Madea is shamelessly inarticulate, saying words like “Hellerr!” (Translation: “Hello!”) and “Hallelujerr!” (Translation: “Hallelujah!”). It’s also worth noting that Madea is a professed heathen, often mocking the heavy dose of Christian Protestant references that permeate Perry’s films.
Madea’s Witness Protection threatens to be just as rife with predictable, indistinct plot situations and outrageous stereotypical characters as with previous Madea films. Expect ineffective dialogue, shoddy editing, and overworked scenes—evidence of the aesthetic failures Perry’s films tend to be. What is undeniable, however, is Perry’s shrewd ability to streamline ignominious African American issues for mass-consumption.
Giving Perry the benefit of the doubt (although he is now seven Madea films deep), perhaps he is still unaware of the medium’s power to magnify cancerous stereotypes (without clarifying subtext), aggravating the social dilemmas that debatably haunt a struggling segment of our population. Perhaps Perry continues to be shortsighted by the narrow intimacy he shares with his unfailingly forgiving theater audiences.
Perry’s brand of extravagantly exploitative filmmaking is not definitively funny; at best it’s categorically absurd. Nonetheless, people the world over continue to consume what Madea is serving up, and Perry’s next ridiculous lap stands to bring in millions.
Folks pay their hard-earned cash for the preposterousness that Perry’s Madea films offer, just as they do for many consumable films produced in the business of Hollywood. Right or wrong, it’s business.
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