Let me preface this by saying I ain’t mad at Tyler Perry.*
Seriously. He does his thing. Writer. Director. Actor. He recognized an underserved market, delivered a product aimed squarely at them and has leveraged that success into a multi-million dollar empire. Go ‘head Brother Perry, do your thing.
That said, I’ve never gotten Tyler Perry movies. Every family Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day dinner, my aunt’s house usually has a Madea movie playing in the background, soothing pleasant enough riffs which keeps family drama to a minimum. The movies have always struck me as a little too earnest for their own good, but they work on their terms. Depending on how much attention is being paid to the screen, church may break out as the family segue ways into Madea’s personal Amen corner to whatever topic she may be preaching on. Good for a few laughs, no harm no foul.
That interactive aspect of Tyler Perry’s work, that dose of “real talk”, the kind of conversations you have in the barbershop or at a prayer meeting once the Bibles have been put away, is what is at the heart of the Madea franchise. Madea works best as a reflection of and sometimes critical commentary on us; like the court jester who serves as the truth teller to the king.
Which brings me to Madea’s Witness Protection.
“You got to get in before you fit in.” –Joe (Tyler Perry)
I remember when “crossover” was the big debate word when it came to black artists who weren’t content to bask in their popularity solely within the black community. Like when Luther Vandross, with his huge black following, couldn’t score a number one pop hit, so he pulled out wedding ballads and power duets while chasing that mainstream success. You know, chasing that Lionel Ritchie/Billy Ocean kind of money and fame. Treading that fine line between crossover and selling out, which was how the crossover debate was usually framed in the hip hop community. Well, Witness Protection is Perry’s crossover bid.
“I want a new life.” –Kate Needleman (Denise Richards)
Wall Street investment bank dude, George Needleman (Eugene Levy) has been set up as the fall guy for his company’s Ponzi scheme shenanigans. He immediately makes a deal with the Feds, dealing with sympathetic ear, Joe. Joe decides the best place for George and his family to hang out incognito would be to drop them at his aunt Madea’s in Atlanta. Hilarity then ensues.
The focus of the film is on the white family, nebbish George; got nothing better than yoga to do trophy wife Kate; moody teenage daughter in need of having her ass beat, Cindy (Danielle Campbell); fade into the background, overweight son Howie (Devan Leos); and borderline-senile mom Barbara (Doris Roberts). In his attempts to capture a larger white audience, I was left with an uneasy after taste about the movie.
“You couldn’t see it because you weren’t paying attention.” –Brian (Tyler Perry)
While it attempted to mine its humor from its fish out of water premise, thus already going against what passed for the movie’s internal logic of keeping a low profile, Madea herself took on the aspect of a zoo exhibition. To counterbalance the movies focus on the white family, Madea seemed more shrill and over-the-top. Not to mention that she is now largely relegated to a cross-dressing Magical Negro in her own franchise. What was worse was the aspect of the comedy deriving more from a “let’s look at the natives in their natural environment for our entertainment” angle that it just couldn’t shake.
“Everybody deserves a second chance.” –Jake
Look, Madea’s Witness Protection may be Tyler Perry’s worst reviewed movies, but it will be one of his most profitable. Adjusted for inflation, it’s his 4th highest-grossing movie, with a near-$65 million box office take. The typical Perry production usually comes in around the $50+ million area. Which means there will be more Madea in our future. Let’s just hope that he returns to her roots and core audience and let her do what she does best.
*Which is akin to a statement beginning “I ain’t racist, but …”