To Kill or not to kill Madea
James B. Golden | 5/11/2011, 5 p.m.
Should Madea die? I've asked myself for years.
I've always been one of Tyler Perry's biggest supporters. He fits in with a rare line of Black filmmakers who employ Black actors.
Perry's ability to produce films featuring all-Black casts is largely due to the works of Oscar Micheaux (the father of Black cinema), Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Julie Dash and legendary director Spike Lee. These renowned and multi-faceted film mavericks have given us some of the most compelling works within Black film from Dash's "Daughters of the Dust" to Lee's "Do the Right Thing" to Singleton's "Boys 'N the Hood."
The release of Perry's film, "For Colored Girls," offered a sense of relief. We had finally put Mabel "Madea" Simmons on pause.
Perry's most infamous gun-toting, weed-smoking, backing-that-thang-up mammy caricature has been a staple within the Black community since her debut in his 1999 stage play, "I Can Do Bad All By Myself."
Madea has been criticized by many intellectuals as a step back into the days when Black women were caricaturized as mammies, in similar fashion to Aunt Jemima. Others, namely Perry's target audience, feel that Madea is a modern heroine, that her comic relief and no-nonsense attitude has the ability to influence our generation to return to old-school customs in raising our children.
I eagerly purchased my ticket to see "Madea's Big Happy Family," and plopped down in my seat, popcorn in hand, and my blood pressure began to rise during the very first scene of the film--and it never went down.
After fully absorbing the 90-minute film, I left the movie theater with my head spinning--something didn't sit well with me.
I began to question Madea's motives as a character. Perry has long said that his films are about putting Black family issues on the table in an exaggerated way, using a painfully direct fashion.
"Madea's Big Happy Family," released on Easter weekend, certainly fit into that mold.
I've never been a stranger to films with outrageous caricatures, remembering Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle," Lee's "School Daze," and the Hughes brothers' legendary film "Menace II Society," but this one was different.
Possibly, the disappearing then suddenly re-emerging characters and holes in the script (Perry generally writes all of his films) were a bit trying for the audience. Maybe it was the constant parody of Black spirituality, including Madea's quoting different "prescriptures" or Aunt Bam's affinity for smoking marijuana before invoking Jesus. Perhaps it was the fact that nearly every woman in the film was depicted as an over-the-top-emotionally-charged shrew who preyed on and emotionally abused their men.
Most likely, my abhorrence of the film came at the hands of Uncle Joe, who repeatedly said the solution the problem of mouthy Black women was calling the hot line (800-CHOKE-THAT-HO.) Perry even wrote a song to accompany the slogan.
No doubt, somewhere in the Black community, Facebook pages, T-shirts and other merchandise are being created with the slogan, and Perry may possibly have to eat those words one day.
Aaron McGruder's television series, "The Boondocks," is Black satire at its absolute finest. In fact, McGruder satirized Perry in the recently banned "Pause" episode of the animated series. In the episode, he parodied Madea with the main character, Winston Jerome, dressing in drag and forcing the men in his production company to walk on egg shells around him-until he eventually bedded them.
While McGruder has been known largely as one of the leading Black satirists, his series has largely challenged the Black community to see issues through several different lenses, including Grandad (the old school-civil rights era survivor), Huey (the intellectual), and Riley (the ghetto fabulous aspiring rapper).
Perry's film, while maintaining the same entertaining qualities of other Madea flicks, falls short of the various lenses. Traditionally, he has tried to pack as many heavy issues as possible into his films, which can either overwhelm the audience or force them to abandon any semblance of absorbing a life-changing theme.
There is no doubt that Perry has been the leading director to employ Black artists and his intentions are wildly important in helping the Black community think more objectively about issues, but perhaps Madea should die as a martyr for social change.
James B. Golden, MPA, is a Los Angeles-based music journalist. He has previously edited the Hip Hop Think Tank academic journal and Kapu-Sens Literary Magazine. He is also the author of a Hip Hop poetry collection entitled "Sweet Potato Pie Underneath the Sun's Broiler."