Until this week, I had never seen a Tyler Perry movie. I was only aware that there was a man with that name who was producing movies at a break-neck pace and distributing them through Lionsgate. In fact, the Tyler Perry story goes back years to a broadcast by Oprah Winfrey that motivated Perry to write down his thoughts. That eventually lead to a play and life in theater lead to Perry donning fake breasts and a wig to make Madea, his famous mad black woman that first appeared on stage in I Can Do Bad All By Myself.
This week, the film adaptation of I Can Do Bad All By Myself opens in the US as Perry’s 8th movie with Lionsgate, and he’s completed the 9th film, Why Did I Get Married Too?, for release in April. The man is certainly prolific and seems to have a message he wants to get across to his audience. It’s just that the audience he plays to is middle class African and Latino Americans, the forgotten demographic when it comes to the weekend box office. When Perry opened Diary Of A Mad Black Woman in 2005 to $50 million dollars, almost all of it domestically, people started to take notice.
Throughout I Can Do Bad All By Myself, I was acutely aware that this movie was not made for me, was not playing to me and, in the one of the oddest feelings I’ve had during a film for awhile, didn’t really care that it kept its distance from me.
Should you, reader, see Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself? Well…
The film is very loosely adapted from Tyler Perry’s play of the same name, but the differences in the public’s perception of Madea and some changes in overall message make the film its own entity. It’s about April, played by Academy Award Nominated Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), a lounge singer who is dating a married man named Randy (the overly sleazy Brian White) and drinking her life away. When her niece Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson) and her two nephews are caught breaking in to Madea’s house, the kids move in with April while the community church tries to track down April’s mother, the guardian of the children.
April, of course, is doing bad all by herself and can’t be bothered with kids. Enter the X-Factor, Sandino (CSI: Miami’s Adam Rodriguez), a Latino handyman who was sent by the church to repair random things in April’s house in exchange for room and board. Sandino quickly forms a bond with Jennifer and April, and instantly dislikes Randy.
To add another layer of story, I Can Do Bad All By Myself is, in part, a musical; Mary J. Blidge plays the owner of the nightclub April works at, and Gladys Knight plays Wilma, one of the local church matrons. A various times thoughout the film, we’ll be treated to a song in its entirety that was placed to echo April’s emotional state at that point in the plot.
At first, this feels hokey, but when Mary J Blidge sings the original title track to the film, “I Can Do Bad,” the charisma of Blidge comes though and the song actually contributes a more accurate character portrait of April than any of the staring into space the teary-eyed Henson provides during montages.
Before I come down on either side of this movie, I feel a disclaimer is needed: this movie is a parable for mostly ethnic communities that I make no claim to understand. Growing up in the middle of Colorado didn’t shut me off to ehnic diversity, but it did shut me off to the culture that’s being spoken to here.
For instance, the film brings up crack addiction and fails to mention a single positive father figure throughout the entire film. The modern African American community and Latin/Hispanic community in the United States have serious paternal issues. From what I understand, it’s been that way for long enough to be taken as a given, but it also serves to narrow the focus of the film. It doesn’t take the time to set the stage for everybody, I Can Do Bad All By Myself is talking to a specific audience right from the start.
By the time the subject of molestation and sexual assault enter the story, these themes become troublesome. The first time we see married Randy meeting April’s new wards for the first time, we know that Randy is a uber-sleaze who is going to assault one of the kids. Brain White plays Randy broad with no redeeming qualities. Eventually, Randy attempts to rape Jennifer, which leads to a teary confession that she was assaulted in her youth.
My thought: “Wow, this family must have some molestation and crack issues.”
The movie’s thought, as outlined by Tyler Perry at a press conference: “Talking about molestation and abuse and sexual abuse, it is very, very clear to me that a lot of our own issues result from, including myself as a person, what has happened to us as a children. So when I was thinking about April and her, ‘I don’t care about anyone but myself,’ and where that would come from, molestation is the route to so many things. So I wanted to explore that a little bit. I think that when people really see it they get it. They understand. They go, ‘Wait a minute, is this why I’m this way?’ So many people it’s happened to and in my house it was, ‘Whatever goes on in this house stays in this house –’ and nothing heals or ever gets covered. That’s what I wanted to address here. I think that as people see it they’ll really get it. I’m speaking to people for the most part, that base, that core audience that everyone has ignored for years and we are a people that exist and need to be spoken to in a way that we get it, in a way that we understand. I’m just really, really fortunate and blessed to have that opportunity to do that.”
How do I judge a parable movie that is making no attempt to speak to me? Of course I found myself getting a little bored during redemption songs in the local church, played in their entirety. Of course it seems weird to me that Gladys Knight’s Wilma would be invited to sing on stage at the nightclub, even though people don’t randomly show up at venues I frequent to show off their pipes.
I Can Do Bad All By Myself is on track to win the weekend box office, again. And several people I’ve talked to since I’ve seen the film have seemed bewildered that Tyler Perry is capable of opening at number 1 with little outward appearance of effort. What’s happened is Terry has found his audience and he’s telling them stories of hope, teaching them that they can also rise above their collective experience and hurt. It’s practically in the title: I Can Do Bad All By Myself means that the only Good you can do comes from family, community and love. Yes, the characters a broad and some of the dramatic moments play large like a play instead of realistically subtle like a film. But, it’s ballsy to make a movie that will never appeal to a majority. If it succeeds, like Tyler Perry’s other films have, the minority being spoken to develops an insider love, like a shared secret amongst friends.
I’m just not part of that secret. What I saw was a mediocre movie with a few good musical performances. However, I never stopped feeling like I was observing the Tyler Perry phenomena from a distance, a distance given to me by my parents and geography, not the color of my skin.
I don’t get it.
I do get #1 Opening Weekend, so does Lionsgate. So, embrace Tyler Perry if you want, but ignoring him isn’t going to stop him.