NEW YORK (CNS) –The arrival of “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Family Funeral,” billed as the last of Perry’s 11 films featuring his signature alter ego, Mabel “Madea” Simmons, would appear to be an ideal opportunity for reflection on what this character has meant as a moral force.
Yet a hunt for appreciations by film critics and academics actually turns up very little.
As famous as she is, Madea also is a trifle embarrassing, like an eccentric relative no one takes very seriously. When reviewers and scholars write about Perry and his movies, the plots and Perry’s use of religion are explored in detail — but Madea typically gets shunted off to one side.
Perry has been accused of minstrelsy and much worse — the inevitable result of being a 6-foot-5 man in a fat suit draped in a muumuu, uttering unique colloquialisms and fractured Scripture quotations. Nuance isn’t what has kept audiences coming back for more.
“She’s a rambunctious, house-coated and sometimes wise old ex-con, and for a lot of people she’s a sticking point,” critic Wesley Morris observed in Film Comment magazine in 2011. “Her outrageousness meets up with the eternal problem of how black people do and do not like to see themselves.”
Whenever asked about his inspiration, Perry explains that Madea is a combination of his mother and an aunt — earthy church ladies who sometimes threatened violence, but seldom acted on it, unlike his abusive father.
Shayne Lee, an associate sociology professor at the University of Houston who’s been one of the few academics to address Madea head-on in “Tyler Perry’s America: Inside His Films” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), thinks that may only be part of the story, as he pointed out during a recent interview with Catholic News Service.
Lee regards Madea as “Perry’s secular heroine. She one-ups Christian characters and balances films with quite the secular perspective. I honestly think Madea represents Perry’s secular alter ego. She voices many of the frustrations he may face as a Christian who had a troubled childhood.”
Perry, Lee writes, “presents Christian spirituality as imbued with worldly flair. His characters draw strength from their faith, but also pursue their lives in ways that resemble Christian contemporaries who have fun, experience the world, and voice no compunction against alcoholic and sensual indulgence. Perhaps we should perceive him as the first cinematic architect of post-soul Christian cool.”
Lee adds that Perry “operates under the assumption that art misfires if it does not offer profound teaching moments.”
“One white critic has said that the only way another white critic can love a Perry movie is out of white, liberal guilt,” Morris writes. “But Perry’s movies give white people nothing to feel guilty about. They operate with little need for white eyes. They’re in conversation with black America, although rarely about life in the larger white world.”
The movies took a downward turn into desultory slapstick when Perry attached Madea’s stories to holidays such as Christmas and Halloween. But they have a triumphant valedictory in “Funeral,” which returns to the structure of one of Perry’s morality plays.
For the uninitiated, here’s a selective look at Madea’s spiritual moments:
“Diary of a Mad Black Woman” (2005) opens with a thundering choir performance, yet also includes Madea at her most violent as she takes a chainsaw to an adulterous man’s couch while attempting to repair a marriage.
When Myrtle (Cicely Tyson), Madea’s daughter-in-law, tells her of a pastor’s admonition in a sermon, “Peace, be still,” Madea replies. “Peace is always still around me because I keeps me what they call a piece of steel.”
The film contains what Perry, playing Brian, Madea’s nephew, considers his favorite line. Helen (Kimberly Elise) tells Brian, “I always thought that if I did all I could, God would bless my marriage.” Brian replies, “It takes a lot more than you doing all you can. And who’s to say this is not your blessing?”
“Madea’s Family Reunion” (2006) has a similar plot to “Diary,” and finds Madea continuing to use violence to restore morality and self-esteem as she counsels a niece abused by her fiance.
“If the New Testament warns that friendship with the world is enmity against God, Perry advocates a less alienating Christian presence that seems quite comfortable with carnality,” Lee writes of the film.
In “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” (2009), alcoholic singer April (Taraji P. Henson) must choose between her shady married boyfriend and a Mexican handyman of deep Christian faith. This film contains a remarkable scene in which Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson), April’s young niece, asks Madea how to pray.
In less capable hands than Perry’s, such an exchange could easily turn mawkish. But Madea keeps matters simple, telling Jennifer that prayer can’t be taught, and it’s important to speak to God straight from her heart. Lee characterizes this as portraying “the priesthood of all believers.”
Madea’s niece Shirley (Loretta Devine) learns she has terminal cancer in “Madea’s Big Happy Family” (2011), and tries to get her three adult children, all locked in dysfunctional relationships, to come to her house so she can break the news to them.
Madea makes it clear that she has no particular religious precepts of her own, and she knows that God is angry at her. But she fully expects her relatives to live up to the Christian faith they profess to have. This prompts her to deploy what Lee calls her “madcap hermeneutics.”
Adultery is again central to the story in “A Madea Family Funeral.” But Madea, rather than judging the male adulterers, tries to make things better for the women who are their victims. Her violent outbursts firmly in the past, she mostly dispenses advice.
“What I know about my audience for a fact is that it’s all. It’s the middle class, it’s the poor, it’s the rich. It’s all of them, and the young and old. And that’s why my stories are the way that they are,” Perry acknowledged in a 2009 interview with Beliefnet. By that, he meant simplicity by design, and Madea the matriarch expresses that — along with the occasional “Hallelu-yer!”