Straight out of Georgia: Madea is a deserved hit|
by Eleanor Ringel Cater
Georgia Online News Service
How do you solve a problem like Madea?
That's probably what a lot of Hollywood suits are asking themselves after Atlanta-based Tyler Perry scored a cool $41 million at the box office last weekend.
His new film, Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail, averaged $20,192 per site. Last Sunday's Oscar winner, Slumdog Millionaire averaged $3,736 per site and a weekend total of $8.6 million. True, it's been about 15 weeks, but it's taken it that long to earn a little more than twice what Madea made in 3 days.
So just what is this Madea madness?
Perry, who was homeless just awhile back and now owns his own studio, has created an identifiable brand--one that elicits both affection and laughter.
If you are unfamiliar with the Madea phenomenon, first let me explain that, like that other famous cross-dresser, Lassie, "she" is a "he." In fact, she's Perry himself, who first created the character of a feisty, seemingly indomitable rootin' tootin' grandma onstage for what has been called (among other things) the Chitlin Circuit.
Wince. Yes, it sounds like an embarrassing designation for an entertainment aimed mostly at African Americans. And, yes, in part, that's exactly what it is. But as Perry himself has explained, there's a certain pride here, too-- and a shared history of solidarity.
Not so long ago -- in fact, a lot TOO recently -- blacks were not allowed to stay in many hotels. Mostly down South, I'm afraid, but the rest of the country wasn't so terrific, either. So African-American performers often stayed in people's homes, where they were often served chitlins-- thus the term, according to Perry.
Madea and company — many of them also played by Perry, including an elderly dope-smoking Uncle Joe who lights up a reefer right next to his oxygen tank — were huge on stage. They're even bigger on screen. The critics may not get it (this one didn't, first time out), but Perry knows what he's doing. And he does it better than anyone else.
It's difficult to explain why these movies are so darned funny. It's like you have to get on their wavelength or be resigned to being left out. In the new one, Madea indeed does land up in jail after a parking lot encounter that's party lifted from Fried Green Tomatoes. There's also another more serious plot involving the conflicts between well-off upper middle-class African Americans and those who are still striving. Here, it's a black attorney whose long-ago connection to a streetwalker/drug addict doesn't sit well with his snobby fiancé. Frankly, the scenes focusing on Madea are far better, even when they get a bit mushy and preachy. The so-called "serious" story tends to melodrama, but at least it's well acted.
Perhaps it's because Perry is so comfortable with his drag alter-ego that his movies work so well for their intended audience (and others; as a white Southern female, I'm not sure I'm considered a target demo) Or maybe it's because, like Bill Cosby and Spike Lee, he comes down on the right side of so many important topics (such as drugs, teenage pregnancy, violence, casual sex). He's a moralist and he doesn't care who knows it.
I'm not trying to sell Madea Goes to Jail as the new Do the Right Thing. And if you are only going to support one movie this weekend, I'd rather you give Slumdog Millionaire a chance because it's not going to be around much longer in theaters and Madea will.
In his way, Perry is as much a boon to the Southern movie industry as Burt Reynolds was in the '70s. (if you want to know what the filmmaker really looks like, check out the man standing by Madea's car near the end) And you needed to be on his wavelength, too.
Plus, I dare you not to laugh when a ripped Uncle Joe stares at a young relative and slurs, "I'm so high, you almost look like yo' real daddy."
Eleanor Ringel Gillespie has been the lead movie critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 28 years. An Atlanta native, she has contributed to CNN, MSNBC, Entertainment Weekly, Headline News and WXIA, Atlanta's NBC affiliate, and been a columnist for TV Guide. She also covers movies and DVDs for the Daily Report and WMLB-AM, Atlanta.
Eleanor Ringel Cater has been a Georgia-based movie critic for 28 years. She has been a regular contributor to CNN, MSNBC, Entertainment Weekly, Headline News and WXIA, Atlanta's NBC affiliate, and a columnist for TV Guide. [full bio]