Madea, mediocrity, and the media

Studio Briefing reports today that there were no advance media screenings of Madea’s Family Reunion in the United States, presumably to avoid the critical drubbing that Diary of a Mad Black Woman got when it opened last year. However, I happened to see the film four days ago with a bunch of other local critics, so I guess Canada is an exception — which is an interesting reversal of sorts, since Diary didn’t open or even press-screen in Canada until a few weeks after it opened at #1 in the States. (And this, despite the fact that the films are produced by Lionsgate, a Canadian company!)

I have never seen Diary, but I remember it got some pretty bad reviews, and if Madea’s Family Reunion is any indication of what that other film was like, then I can see why. The visuals are extremely blah (the film is little more than a series of close-ups on people’s faces), the humour isn’t all that funny, the melodrama is too crassly soap-operatic (including a “forgiveness” element that is introduced with all the message-driven non-subtlety of a church-service skit, and I say this as one who has acted in a few), and there’s some heavy speechifying at the family reunion itself (much of it directed at characters we have never seen before, and all of it spoken by characters we have never seen before, but the speakers are played by the likes of Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson, so we know it’s all Very Important; did these characters exist in the original play?). It’s pretty mediocre all-around.

Watching this movie was more of an exercise in cultural studies than in moviegoing, or entertainment, or whatever. I mean, I’m floored when I hear that Tyler Perry has made a fortune off of these plays and their straight-to-DVD adaptations; and of course now he’s making even more millions via the movie versions. He’s obviously resonating with something in the African-American subculture, all the more so because his films (and plays?) wouldn’t seem to have any particularly great merit as films (and plays).

Of course, you could say the same thing about the Christian subculture and the Left Behind movies, and gay friends of mine have grumbled about the low quality of movies produced primarily for the gay subculture, too. These films, too, are more interesting for what they reveal about their cultures than for any inherent artistic or even entertainment-value reasons.

As for the audiences that embrace such films, I guess they figure mediocrity isn’t so bad when it’s our mediocrity.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • magnus

    Very true about subcultures, especially if they feel they have something to prove. Often they try too hard to prove that they can be just as professional (read commercially viable) as what is produced in the mainstream. Christians demonstrate this so well, but I also saw it while I lived in Quebec.
    There were certain francophones in the music industry there who were very eager to show that they could keep pace with the rest of North America. One producer had played a CD he was working on for my Bar Manager, Dom Castelli, before we opened the club. It was very generic sounding Industrial music, like a knock off of Rammstein. But he was trying to make francophone music he thought would be viable to the anglophone mainstream – something that would crack that market.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11720831300499289771 Chris Utley

    A couple of things:

    1. LionsGate only co-financed both “Diary” and “Madea”. Tyler Perry footed most of the bill for both films himself. He even owns the copyrights on both films.

    2. Your reaction to the film reminds me to another discussion I had about Brokeback Mountain recently. To make a very long story short, I was forced to admit and accept the fact that BM had a completely different impact on me than it’s target audience because, to put it bluntly, I’m hetero. As much as I could empathize and have compassion for what I saw in the film, the fact that I’m not gay filters how I view the film.

    I see the same dynamic playing itself out regarding your view of this film. I just left a 500 seat megaplex auditorium where 99.9% of the audience would probably have you stoned for calling this film “mediocre”. What is mediocre to you is monumental to us, the 99.9% African American audience in that theatre. We laughed, we cried, we yelled back at the screen, and at the end, we cheered. That explains why Tyler Perry didn’t screen the film for American critics. He doesn’t need Ebert’s “thumbs-up” for his approval. The audiences are his critics. Our laughter, our smiles, and the soon-to-be #1 US Box Office ranking…not to mention the approval from his Creator…is all the thumbs up he needs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    1. LionsGate only co-financed both “Diary” and “Madea”. Tyler Perry footed most of the bill for both films himself. He even owns the copyrights on both films.

    Thanks for the info, Chris. My hunch is that Lionsgate has what the magazines would call “first publication rights” — or, in this case, first distribution rights — in which case the decision whether to show the film to critics in advance would probably still be theirs, not Perry’s. (Though as you noted elsewhere, if the daily paper in Perry’s home town of Atlanta was the only mainstream paper south of the border to review the film on opening day, then it would seem Perry probably had some say in the advance screenings, too.)

    2. Your reaction to the film reminds me to another discussion I had about Brokeback Mountain recently. To make a very long story short, I was forced to admit and accept the fact that BM had a completely different impact on me than it’s target audience because, to put it bluntly, I’m hetero.

    Actually, I would not say that Brokeback Mountain had any particular “target audience”. I don’t think Brokeback Mountain was intended as an exclusive subcultural product for the “gay community” any more than Ang Lee’s earlier film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was intended as an exclusive subcultural product for the “Asian community”. Yes, gay men will have a unique perspective on Brokeback Mountain, and Chinese fans of a certain genre will have a unique perspective on Crouching Tiger, but those films also have a broad appeal outside those communities that I don’t think Tyler Perry’s films have outside the black community (or the Left Behind films outside the evangelical community, etc.).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08741378159534413277 Magnus

    So what would your take on films like Crooklyn be in comparisson to Perry’s films? I believe I saw Crooklyn with you, did I not? I seem to remember we both liked the film quite a bit. For that matter, I really liked Do the Right Thing and Clockers. (just to name a few films – not including documentaries or bio pics) Spike Lee’s work as compared to Perry’s?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08741378159534413277 Magnus

    BTW, you owe me an email about the article. Tick tock…


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