Madea’s Happy Family/Tyler Perry’s Unhappy Critics

Larry and I went to see the latest Madea film on Sunday. We laughed, and I cried. More about the movie below. The Madea franchise is wildly successful and also the subject of highly divided opinion among blacks. Her greeting “Hellerr” has become a standard among some of my friends. The debate over the quality and value of these movies elevated more than a year ago when Spike Lee called Perry’s movies “coonery and buffoonery.” Tyler Perry’s response was not exactly enlightening, either.

NPR used the release of Big Happy Family to engage the debate. Toure agreed with Lee saying that Perry made “schlocky” films, calling him the worst director in Hollywood. Goldie Taylor observed that Perry made valuable contributions by depicting true aspects of certain parts of the African American community. I am actually thinking of emulating Madea’s “don’t mess with me” look, the one that can get gang bangers and other supposed toughs to stop in their tracks.

The Lee/Perry conflict has occasioned vituperation (read the comments following “A Debate Over Class and ‘Coonery’ ”) without much substance. Even Professor Cornel West contributed little as he waxed eloquent on the difference between greatness and success in this audio-challenged video. He made the same point as Goldie Taylor (in far more preacherly fashion) that Tyler Perry can be “brought along” just as Lee has risen to greater intellectual and aesthetic heights.

As for Madea’s Big Happy Family it has all the humor, the humorous violence, and pathos of its predecessors. Perry launched Happy Family as a play, and it shows. After Madea creates a  new opening at the drive-through, most of the action takes place at the home of Madea or her niece Shirley. The scenes in the other locations – on the street, in a vacant mansion, a car repair shop, a trucking company – seem added just to vary the background. All the good stuff comes in the interactions among the characters, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re sitting in front of a blank TV screen or at a dinner table. The one segment that needs a special location is the set of the Maury Povich show. Madea’s appearance there is worth the price of admission.

My only other quibble, somewhat larger that the first, is that the two big secrets are revealed without sufficient build-up. I kept wondering how two sisters could be so evil to each other without any hint about why. The “reveal,” divided in two parts, is deflating. But, hey, this is not Amiri Baraka, so I’ll forgive ‘em.

And those are minor problems. The movie really does justice to a slice of African American life. A few highlights: Teyana Taylor as the “baby momma” deserves some kind of award for most obnoxious voice in a movie – ever. Cassi Davis goes over the top as the pot-smoking, beyond middle age Aunt Bam. Love her wig, which is never on quite straight. And of course Perry as Madea (also wearing an askew wig) and as Joe with grizzled whiskers goes even further over the top. Two thumbs up with a fist bump!


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