Wednesday, February 25, 2009

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]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia.

Real estate prices and sales across the state continue to plunge. See for yourself in our in-depth story about what's happening to the renaissance in downtown living. Georgia Online News Business Writer Jeanne Bonner has surveyed the scene, and finds experts who feel "new urbanist" developments – walkable and transit-friendly – have the best chance of recovering fast.

Also today is a condensed version of the governor's plan to shift the state agencies that control our roads, an opinion piece on the rules of man versus the rules of law, and our esteemed film critic Eleanor Ringel Gillespie takes a look at the new Tyler Perry movie and loves it.

GONSO is an enterprise founded and staffed by more than two dozen leading journalists and media executives in Georgia. We're providing content free -- for a limited period. Newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers and websites are welcome to use our articles -- please credit the writers and the Georgia Online News Service.

Thoughts? Executive editor John Sugg is available at john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org. You can also call us at 800-891-3459.


Today's GONSO

How will the housing bust affect a renaissance in downtown living in cities across Georgia?

by Jeanne Bonner
Cheap sales and foreclosures everywhere. But some argue it doesn't mean that the renaissance in downtown living is over.
Full Story

Bill Overhauling State's Transportation Lands in Senate Committee

by Maggie Lee
There are 101 pages in the bill designed to completely change how Georgia's transportation agencies rule the roads. Here's a quick look that condenses the way the governor and others want to see change.
Full Story

Straight out of Georgia: Madea is a deserved hit

by Eleanor Ringel Cater
Georgia's own Tyler Perry keeps churning them out. And churning out good ones, at that. They're so good they thump hits like Slumdog Millionaire at the box office. Madea is a crowd pleaser that elicits affection and laughter.
Full Story

SOAPBOX

Again, the "frivolous lawsuit" card is played

by Jay Cook
It's that time, when government tries to replace the rule of law with the rule of men. And we shouldn't let it happen, says the president of the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
DOT Boss Fired, Transport Bill Raises Constitutionality Questions
by Maggie Lee
House passes Georgia Power’s nuclear funding plan
by K. Patrick Jensen
Where's the Braves' Leadoff Hitter?
by Paul Kaplan
Make the Georgia Youth Conservation Corps a Reality
by Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta)

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