“I think there’s a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery. I see ads for ‘Meet the Browns’ and ‘House of Payne’ and I’m scratching my head. We’ve got a black president and we’re going back. The image is troubling and it harkens back to Amos ‘n’ Andy.” – Spike Lee,
I walked into Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas thinking of myself as some sort of anthropologist out to see a cultural artifact that I certainly wouldn’t relate to, probably wouldn’t understand, and definitely wouldn’t enjoy. The only time I’ve seen Madea, Tyler Perry’s cross-dressing, truth-telling, large-boned grandmother, or anything else involving Perry for that matter (yeah, I skipped Alex Cross), has been in trailers and commercial spots. And, like pretty much every other adult white male in America, I rolled my eyes at Madea and scoffed at those who would stoop to enjoy Perry’s shenanigans. Spike Lee, after all, is right (this time anyway): just watch any commercial for a Tyler Perry project and you immediately have to wonder how in the world any self-respecting person, of any color, could view his work as anything other than regressive.
So why, you ask, did I choose to see a Madea movie now? And if I had been wanting to explore, anthropologist-style, the world of Tyler Perry, why wouldn’t I go back to Madea’s Family Reunion (2002) first? Here, where I started, some 15 Madea features into the game, is like jumping into the deep end of the pool. Without water wings. But here’s the deal: I have a foster daughter. She loves Madea. She’s in her teens, and as the responsible, cinephile adult in the room, I feel the need to elevate her movie education a little. We’ve worked out a deal. I have to sit through one of her flicks, she has to sit through one of mine. In exchange for A Madea Christmas, she had to watch Back to the Future, Part II (Back to the Future having already been seen in exchange for Urban Cowboy).
This situation puts me in a disarming position. I knew that now matter how predetermined I was to hate this film, I couldn’t just dump on it. If it did reek of coonery, I’d have to explain it to her gently. But if I were to go off on A Madea Christmas, Madea-style, truth-telling and all, she, my foster daughter, would probably hate me and then break off the movie exchange program. Then she’d never develop any sophistication in her film tastes, which means that she’ll probably date dumb guys, wind up with an asshole for a husband and lead a horrible life. I won’t trash her movie, because I’d like her to examine her tastes rather than just submit to mine. So, I decided that I’d watch with an open mind. The open mind of an anthropologist ready to eviscerate a backwards cultural artifact, mind you.
As cinema, A Madea Christmas is crap. Perry comes from the theatre and he makes only the faintest attempts to transfer his material over to the movies. His camera has all the life of an After School Special and his editing reaches for the elegance of an episode of Two and a Half Men, at best. But since Perry isn’t interested in the finer aspects of moviemaking, we’ll excuse his sloppiness and assume that his multi-million dollar popularity hasn’t been based on any attempt to get win accolades in Film Comment or Cahiers du Cinéma. I can tell you this: my foster daughter didn’t notice anything wrong with the mise-en-scène.
SPOILERS BEGIN (But, seriously, you’re not going to see this movie, right? Go ahead and read on)
When Perry’s cross-dressed Madea agrees (but only after a painful scene in which she has employment as a department store clerk for the Christmas season) to accompany her friend Eileen to rural Alabama for a surprise visit to Eileen’s daughter, Lacey, things go horribly wrong, as they are wont to do in these movies. For starters, Lacey has failed to tell her mother that she has eloped with a white farmer/scientist, Conner. Eileen hates white people. It’s irrational, but she does. And because Lacey hasn’t told her mother about the marriage, Eillen believes, upon seeing the white dude, who is clad in a mechanics’ coveralls, that her daughter has retained a man-servant/farmhand who apparently just came along with the house that she bought on her kindergarden teacher’s salary. The farm hand/husband has a family, too, and guess what? Yes, they too are coming for Christmas. And Conner’s father isn’t just any father, he’s Larry the Cable Guy. Yes, the Larry the Cable Guy, complete with a Prilosec OTC joke for those of us who’ve seen his TV commercials. There a scene in which Cable Guy’s bedtime antics are mistaken for a KKK ritual, there’s Madea teaching farm hand/husband Conner how to milk a cow (hint: you have to really pull those tits!), and there’s the requisite plot line involving a Christmas Jubilee that’s getting sponsored by some evil construction company that the townsfolk hate because said construction company has taken all their jerbs away from them. And everything gets fixed in the end. Par for the course. There’s your plot synopsis. It’s coated with Madea’s no-nonsense wisdom, always delivered to us in proverbial fashion. Truth is honest and truth is funny, especially when it doesn’t know the meaning impropriety. And I didn’t even get to the part where Madea ties up a child to a cross with Christmas lights and then places a wreath on the child’s head. But you get the idea.
Trailers don’t lie. Madea is everything that she is advertised to be and then some.
This is a really bad movie, everyone. It’s unbearable in a dozen ways. Just trust me on this. Don’t ever let your curiosity get the better of you when you spot that copy of Madea Goes to Jail at your local video store.
But while you’re staying away from the Madea phenomenon, you should find a place within yourself to respect it, to admire it even. Because when you cut through the crap (and there is a mountain to cut through, my friends), Tyler Perry is creating something that has social value, even if the caricatures do cross the line into coonery. Yes, this movie, and perhaps all the other Madea movies (sight unseen), have social value. I’m going to write that one more time, because like you, I’m having a hard time believing it. Am I writing this? I guess so. Social value.
“All these characters are bait – disarming, charming, make you laugh bait. I can slap Madea on something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family, any of those…It’s attitudes like [Lee’s] that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist and that’s why there’s no material speaking to them.” – Tyler Perry, in response to Spike Lee
I’m writing this and I know that I’m still condescending to A Madea Christmas. I know I’m not giving it a fair shot, so it’s time to try. Are you a Christian? Yes? No? Well, Tyler Perry is. I am, too. And at some point in the movie (I can’t remember if it was the part where Madea lays into Eileen [and, by extension, the audience] on the subject of racial harmony or when Eileen pulls the actual bad white dude, not to be confused with farm hand/husband white dude, out from a burning pickup truck) it triggered in me that I’d seen this sort of movie before. Described as the “Gospel Genre” by those who feel the need to taxonomize, Perry’s vibe began to remind me of Christian movies that I’d been raised on, everything from The Buttercream Gang (1992, straight to video) to Facing the Giants (2006). These are a films of a genre that makes only a half-hearted attempt at entertaining the audience while ham-fistedly shoving Christian messages down their throats. Some of these films are admirable for their sense of urgency and sincerity (We’re On Our Own), but others (see the aforementioned Facing the Giants) should be taken up by every Christian and burned in a massive bonfire for their sickening theology. The more benign of these films hands the audience a message of positivity, community, and trust in Jesus; the malignant teach Christians that prosperity and dramatic satisfaction are only just a matter of your willingness to repent and pray. Perry never goes so far as to have anyone accept Jesus into their hearts, but his characters do repent. They recognize that they are blinded by prejudice, hardened by fear, and caught in their own cartoonish brand of stubbornness. I know that this isn’t exactly different from a lot of sappy Hollywood dramas, but I do think that Perry is being genuine with us. He wants us to consider our own prejudices, our own insecurities, and selfishness, even if he engenders us in the crudest of ways.
And this is where the social value part comes in. As a dedicated cinephile and admirer of fine films, I wanted to turn my head in embarrassment while watching A Madea Christmas, even though everyone else in the theatre was having a good time. But when I began to equate Perry’s film with the Christian movies that I’d been exposed to, I remembered that for all the attention I pay to cinematic genius, none of it really matters. Not really. And I recalled that as piss-poor as some of those films were, they did embed solid ideals into me at an impressionable age. If Tyler Perry can convince or remind his audience that the abolishment of racial prejudice means that we should pay attention to content of character rather than color of skin, then let him. If Madea can sell her audience on the idea that you should love your neighbor as yourself and that you should also love your enemy while at the same time defying the movie gods, let her. Perry’s aim is true. I think.
Do I sound like an apologist for philistine cinema now? Am I excusing the coonery? Maybe I am and it does scare me a little. But movies are the great egalitarian art form. Accessible to all and easily enjoyed, movies invite us to participate in their worlds casually, to quote their lines while we banter with friends, and to recall their uplifting moments when we are down in the dumps. Perry has accessed the imagination of his audience and used that access to teach us in proverbs, straight from the heart, landing in the gut. A Madea Christmas, without any subtlety at all, teaches us that parents shouldn’t meddle in their adult children’s business, that those same adult children should respect their parents enough to be honest about their adult lives, that harmony among races can as simple as not being hung up on skin color or cultural differences, and that we should be really, really upset whenever unbelievers try to take the Christ out of Christmas!
Wait, what? You mean Perry actually wastes precious space in his movie railing against the common secular practice of trying to exclude the “Christ” from Christmas? Yeah, okay, never mind. As soon as I convince myself that there’s some value in this movie I recall that the blessing is mixed.