Or, how I learned to stop worrying and hate Tyler Perry (spoilers abound)
In the mid-nineties one of the innumerable plays on the so-called chitlin' circuit took to advertising on Los Angeles radio. In-between snatches of dramatically tense dialogue, a somber baritone would read out the play's tagline, "How do you love a black woman?" My mother and I felt the humorless repetition of this one line as if it were an ineffable universal question was hilarious. Soon we took to trying to outdo each other by pronouncing "How do you LOVE a BLACK wo-mon?" in increasingly melodramatic tones. This alternately irritated and tickled my grandmother, who could see the absurdity but felt that my mother and I should be more careful about knocking black creative efforts. To understand this viewpoint, you have to understand that my grandmother was born into a modest working class family in Baton Rouge, and had clawed her way up to middle class with indomitable willpower in the face of mid-20th Century racism. She was a church-going sorority member and an Eastern Star who always maintained that her middle class ex-husband and their daughters never did enough to keep up their status. My mother had no interest in joining the AKAs. My aunts didn't want to "debut." Despite a string of awards for writing in high school, I was a disappointment because I had turned down an invitation to Jack and Jill. Perhaps because of finding herself in a world where her nearest and dearest didn't appreciate her efforts to boost them into being respectable members of the bourgeoisie, my grandmother unreservedly loved chitlin' circuit plays with their stock characters, predictable storylines, and inevitable moral lessons. She dragged me to see one as a high school graduation gift, and I found it deathly dull. The play I saw, with its Jesus loving matriarch, hardworking heroine, sassy and conniving snap-queen hairdresser, and upwardly mobile villainess whose inevitable downfall is predicated by the good man's realization of her wickedness owed more to Pantomime theater than to Lorraine Hansberry or August Wilson.
That my Grandmother, a property-owning, university educated landlady would have identified with downtrodden but virtuous long-suffering matronly Cassandras present in these plays rather than the upwardly mobile Jezebels is no surprise. The playwrights knew their audience. Wealthy enough to afford tickets, but desperately wanting validation and acknowledgment of their suffering. Their messages, "go to church," "listen to your mama," "stay away from sex" resonated with my grandmother even if she chose to ignore the other message, "KNOW YOUR PLACE." This was the milieu in which Tyler Perry first emerged as a creative force.
Arguably the most successful person to emerge from this atmosphere, Perry transitioned his moralistic passion plays to the cinema where he profited immensely from audiences who shared a lot of commonalities with my grandmother. I'd seen a few of his films in the past, and was largely impressed by the quality of his casts, even as I shrank from the awful writing and lackluster direction. Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson, Kathy Bates, Idris Elba, Thandie Newton, and Alfre Woodard all appeared in Tyler Perry films, and I've watched a few just out of the sheer joy of seeing some of my favorite actors working when roles for black women, actresses of a certain age, and black men are scarce. It was with the intent of seeing Jurnee Smollett-Bell, whose self-possessed performance in Eve's Bayou at the age of ten left an indelible impression on me, that I made the mistake of seeing Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.
As mostly adaptations of Chitlin' Circuit plays, Tyler Perry films have all the problems endemic to the genre, and a few unique to Perry. Recurring motifs of educated black women being uppity, vindictive shrews who face a terrible downfall seem an attempt to shame or mock women who act outside their prescribed roles, rather than Perry's stated intent to uplift black women. Characters in Perry films are often broad stereotypes, of which Madea, Perry's wise-cracking drag mammy persona, is not the most egregious. But while there is much to dislike about Perry's work on both thematic and technical levels, Temptation is the first film that I found to be both repugnant in its sentiment and arguably dangerous in its message.
In Temptation, Smollett-Bell plays Judith, a therapist employed at a matchmaking company owned by Janice (Vanessa L. Williams with a ridiculous fake accent) who is bored by her churlish, inattentive childhood sweetheart husband and his insistence on lights-out missionary sex. Judith also hates her job, and longs to start her own private practice, but her pharmacist husband Brice (Lance Goss) thinks she should keep the security that Janice and her millionaire matchmaking service offer with a regular paycheck. Firm in his belief that Judith should stop getting idea above her station, Brice meets the new employee at the pharmacy (played by Brandy Norwood) who is on the run from an abusive and controlling ex.
Trapped at her unsatisfying, stifling job, Judith meets new investor Harley (Robby Jones), a dotcom billionaire who sexually harasses her in the workplace over bland matchmaking questionaires that do not include any questions about sexual compability. Skeevy Harley asks Judith why a relationship-focused service does not deal with sexuality, and Judith primly replies that she does not believe in pre-marital sex. Harley taunts her and claims that her sex life must be boring (spoiler: it is). Judith goes home and tries to get her sexy on with Brice, who is appalled at his wife's nascent sluttishness and mild attempts at kink and rejects her. Then he forgets her birthday and fails to notice his wife's attempt to move away from the church mouse look she'd been rocking thus far.
Disillusioned with her husband, Judith listens to Janice's terrible advice to flirt with Harley and lets Kim Kardashian make her over. She flies with Harley on his private jet on a business trip in New Orleans where they indulge in scandalous, non-Christian activities like dancing, and having cocktails. On the way back, Harley puts the moves on Judith. She says no. She tell him to stop. She fights him. He grabs her face and says, "You can say you resisted." And trapped in a plane with a man who will not take no for an answer, Judith is raped. But Perry presents this as "seduction." It is important to note that at no point does she give consent.
Harley drops his victim off and meets Judith's church-going mother, who is a long-suffering Cassandra and warns her daughter about the evil billionaire and reminds him of her good man. Judith is bored with Brice, and starts seeing Harley on the side. This begins a downward spiral into drugs and severe fashion choices. She leaves Brice for Harley. Judith's mama ambushes her with a prayer circle, but Harley knocks mama to the ground and spirits Judith away. Judith is upset about Harley cold-cocking her mama, and Harley beats her for questioning him.
Brice has dinner with Melinda (Brandy Norwood) and asks her if she'll ever find love again. She says no, because her abusive ex-husband gave her HIV. Then in a twist telegraphed from the first scene she appeared in, Melinda reveals that her ex is Harley. Brice then dashes over to Harley's home to save his battered wife, and beats Harley.
There is then an epilogue in which a shuffling, lonely Judith goes to get her HIV medication from Brice, who has a new wife and son.
This movie is the worst. The absolute worst. Without getting into the awful direction, the wooden dialogue, and the poor production values, its theme is utterly repulsive. It uses HIV for cheap, dramatic purposes and turns it into a punishment for Judith's "sin." HIV positive people are presented as lonely, unloveable modern-day lepers, rather than people with a persistent, but manageable disease. Tyler Perry apparently cannot tell the difference between rape and seduction. The uppity, evil Jezebel in this film only wanted a private practice and sex that wasn't perfunctory, and instead she is presented as a fallen woman (despite only having had two sex partners ever) and deserving of her fate of rape, physical abuse, abandonment, and illness. All of Perry's moralistic, sex-fearing, anti-intellectual tendencies have come to a head in the most noxious way possible.
I'm proud to excoriate Perry's work. I couldn't live with myself if that kind of awfulness went un-criticized out of fear of playing into some sort of respectability politics.