There's Just Something About Madea

By Cathleen Falsani 2-27-2009

The first three screenings of Tyler Perry's new film, Madea Goes to Jail, that I tried to go to last week were sold out. When I finally did get a ticket, I had one of the last single seats in the suburban theater where the 103-minute "dramedy" was playing on two screens simultaneously.

I love Perry's work. (I actually joined his fan club online a while back.) And I'm completely obsessed with Madea, his hallmark character. The Feb. 20 release date for the latest Madea tale had been on my calendar for months. If the crowd at the ticket counters was any indication, I was not alone.

The audience members in the packed house where I watched the film spanned the age range from children (there were at least two infants present) to the elderly. There were many families there together, and the vast majority of the audience was African-American.

I am not Perry's target audience. But he has hooked me anyway. I first saw one of his films -- Diary of a Mad Black Woman -- on cable a few years ago. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon and there was nothing else on, so I gave it a whirl.

Subtlety is not Perry's strong suit. The plot was predictable, the dialogue painfully hokey at times, and stereotypical "black folk" characters abounded. I almost turned it off, but something caught me by the heel.

Beneath layers of what could have been dismissed as offensively saccharine was a soulful and surprising heart.

At the time, I didn't know much about Perry, his plays or his movies. I didn't know his provenance starting out as a playwright in Atlanta, where he wrote faith-themed, down-homey plays for what is often described as the "chitterlings circuit." In 15 years, Perry, 39, has become an entertainment powerhouse, fueled in large part by the larger-than-life character he plays himself: Madea. This foul-mouthed, straight-talking, pistol-packing, chain-smoking, fiercely protective, family-first, church-averse grandmama from Atlanta's hood stole my heart. She even reminds me of a few women I've known over the years, in and out of church.

Perry's portrayal of the behemoth, 6-foot-5 gray-wigged Madea is hilarious, and her latest incarnation does not disappoint. The movie is terrifically funny -- the prison scenes are full of virtuoso physical comedy -- but it also has a more consistently serious edge than some of Perry's earlier films.

What keeps me attached to Madea is what she says and how she says it. One of my favorite quotes comes from the stage version of Madea Goes to Jail, where she talks about people in our lives being like trees; that some fall off like leaves in a season, while others are the roots that keep us grounded in a storm. "When you get you some roots, hold on to them," Madea says. "The rest of 'em? Just let them go. Let folks go."

Trite? Maybe. But true.

The Madea Goes to Jail film is about a lot of things, and its meandering plot may wear on some folks' nerves. Its central theme, though, is forgiveness -- a motif that runs through all of Perry's work.

"With everything I've done, in the end, whoever the central character is, they would find a way to forgive, because that's really important to me," Perry said in an interview with a few years ago. "The most important thing that I learned in growing up is that forgiveness is something that, when you do it, you free yourself to move on. And in finding that in my own life, I wanted to share it with other people."

His fixation with the three "F's" -- family, forgiveness and faith -- makes Perry unique. He has never been accused of making artistically beautiful films, and he's dogged by criticisms of offering "inferior quality" work to an undiscerning audience. Kurosawa he's not, but there's power in Perry's films, and it's not just as an opiate for the masses.

"Forgiveness is not for the other person, it's for you," Ellen, the prison chaplain played by Oscar nominee (for Doubt) Viola Davis, tells a room full of women prisoners in Madea Goes to Jail. "Everybody in here is holding on to something. You hold on to the pain, you hold on to the past, you hold on to the hurt and the longer you hold on to it the longer you hold yourself back from being free."

What I appreciate most about Perry is that he's unapologetic and upfront about his faith on screen as well as off. Perry doesn't try to sneak Jesus through the back door or insist on "helping God across the street like a little old lady," to borrow a line from U2's spiritually eloquent new album.

Perry doesn't hedge about his faith and neither do his characters. "I'm not afraid to have a character say, 'I am a Christian,' or, 'I believe in God,' because I think they represent real people on this Earth," the filmmaker said in the Beliefnet interview.

Yes, Madea, in or out of jail, is larger than life.

She's an imperfect (artistic) vessel, like the rest of us.

But she's real in the way that matters.

Cathleen Falsani is the author of the new book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.

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