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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 27, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Diary of a Mad Black Woman, black audiences, and a songwriter

It's not going to be nominated for an Oscar, but Diary of a Mad Black Woman is one of the best movies of 2005.

Kimberly Elise is luminous as Helen, a wife of 18 years whose lawyer husband (Steve Harris) doesn't just ditch her for a golddigger, he literally throws her out of the house.

The guy driving the truck that hauls away Helen and all her stuff (Orlando, played by the equally luminous Shemar Moore) turns out to be exactly what she needs -- an honest, hard-working Christian man who wants to spend his life loving her, as equal partners.

The trouble is, she has a hard time believing him, and an even harder time letting go of her rage at her husband.

Steve Harris (of The Practice) is brilliant as Charles, the cruel husband. And, to my relief, the writer didn't just make him a villain. He goes through his own redemptive process, which Harris brings off perfectly. Harris is one of those rare actors who is on fire all the time, so that, love him or hate him, you just can't take your eyes off him.

Cicely Tyson is gorgeous as Helen's wise and longsuffering mother. Instead of being a mere icon, as when she played the blind "witch" in Because of Winn-Dixie, she gets to be a whole person here, and we realize once again why she is one of the grandes dames of film.

The show is nearly stolen, however, by the two comic characters that are played by Tyler Perry, the movie's author. He plays Helen's aunt Madea, an irreverent, gun-totin' mama who would go to church if they got a smoking section. He also plays Madea's lecherous, conscience-free brother Joe.

The filmmakers didn't waste a dime trying to do any special effects that would put both these characters on screen together. They just cut back and forth, and the audience doesn't notice or care. What matters is that Tyler Perry not only writes hilarious comedy, he can perform it, too.

I had never seen Perry perform before, but I figured out that the same actor was playing both those parts. It wasn't until I got home, though, that I realized that Perry also plays the very serious role of Brian, the husband of a drug addict who tough-loves her into realizing that she has to take responsibility for her own addiction.

So Tyler Perry can apparently do it all -- comedy and drama, writing and acting.

I will try not to let my envy of him turn into full-blown hatred.

Meanwhile, this movie is a weird-but-wonderful blend of melodrama and slapstick comedy.

In fact, there are times that I wondered whether the melodrama wasn't meant to be funny, too -- because sometimes it is absolutely over the top, like when Steve Harris drags Kimberly Elise out the door of their (no, his) mansion.

But no, I don't think so. I just think Tyler Perry is not ashamed to go for drama that is as intense as his comedy. And the actors in this movie are with him all the way. Steve Harris makes his melodramatic bad husband absolutely believable. When Helen is in vengeance mode, Kimberly Elise plays are with frightening, not funny, intensity.

And Shemar Moore says the most hopelessly romantic lines with such utter sincerity that instead of laughing, the women in the audience sigh and wish that somebody would say things like that to them, while the guys in the audience are thinking, I must be some kind of jerk that I never think of things like that to say.

The thing that makes the melodrama work is that the story is true to its characters. Orlando really is the good Christian man that he sounds and acts like. Charles really is the selfish beast who is humbled. The story earns the over-the-top moments.

The only thing I would have changed at all is when, near the end, Helen didn't say, but should have, "I stayed with you while you still needed me, but now I'm going back to the happiness I found without you." So it wouldn't feel like a betrayal of the beautiful climactic scene in the church.

Which is one of the things I loved best about this movie. Everything comes together at church, during a gospel song, and if you don't cry, then you need a heart transplant right now.

Count on it: Tyler Perry will be seen again and again as Madea and other characters, and I'll be right there to laugh along with him.

I only hope he does more than just follow the obvious money -- I want to see what he'd do as a writer when he doesn't have his great comic characters to fall back on.

I think he'd be great. I think he has the potential to write the kind of movies that Frank Capra created, where over-the-top sentimentality was made real, and movies weren't embarrassed to show good people doing good.

*

Diary of a Mad Black Woman barely edged out Hitch as the top money-making movie this weekend.

Think about that. The top two movies on the last weekend of February 2005 were a romantic comedy starring a black man -- Will Smith -- and a melocomedy with an all-black cast, written by and featuring a black comedian and playwright in his first theatrically released feature film.

Neither movie was about race. They just took the characters' race for granted as part of the cultural background of the movie and didn't bother to make a big deal about it.

I hope Hollywood gets the message, once and for all: Black people can write, direct, and star in any kind of movie and make a lot of money for the studio.

Of course, black actors, writers, and directors can also make flops. Just like anybody else, they rise and fall by their talent -- not by their race.

So it's time for the studios to stop caring about race when they decide which movies to back and which actors to hire. Racism isn't dead in America, but when it comes to making money at the movies, it is irrelevant.

It's time for "liberal" Hollywood to realize that the American film audience is way, way ahead of them when it comes to race.

*

Before Diary, Tyler Perry was completely unknown to the white audience. After a long struggle, his plays became hits in the black community (starting in Atlanta but spreading all over), and his direct-to-video shows featuring the character Madea, who is also hilariously present in Diary, have had an almost-exclusively black audience.

So it's no surprise that when we went to the packed 9:20 Friday showing of Diary, my wife and I might have been the only white people in the theater.

When black people know they're the majority of the audience, they don't follow all those white-people rules about prim audience behavior.

They talk back at the screen. They wisecrack. They join right in with the show.

It's like going to church. In African-American culture, most folks don't think that church is about sitting silently while the preacher edifies them and the choir sings. They answer the preacher all the time; they sing along or move to the music.

It only makes sense that they respond to movies the same way -- out loud, exuberantly. American blacks don't show respect by being silent -- they show love by opening up their hearts and making noise about it.

Don't think for a minute that when Tyler Perry wrote Diary and Darren Grant directed it that they weren't absolutely counting on the audience being part of the show.

I know there are plenty of white folks who would absolutely love this movie -- but who probably won't go because it makes them uncomfortable to be the only white people in a huge, enthusiastic crowd of blacks.

This is not racism per se, it's human nature. Whenever you feel yourself to be in a minority, it makes you edgy and less comfortable.

The thing to remember is, that's how black people feel all the time when they are out in the white-dominated world. If they can handle it, so can you.

So get over it. Don't miss seeing a wonderful movie because you aren't used to being in the minority.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman is a romantic comedy. Everybody's coming to the show to laugh and to celebrate love and maybe shed a sweet tear or two.

Which means they're all in a good mood and nobody's going to be unkind to you. Relax. Enjoy the whole experience, including the audience backtalk and catcalls and laughter.

Frankly, I wish everybody watched movies the way black people do. I think watching The Aviator would be a much better experience if people would just laugh out loud at the blue lawns and blue peas instead of pretending to understand and admire Scorcese's defective artistic choices.

The fact is that even though black culture is distinct, it's still part of American culture. And white people who haven't learned to be comfortable in that culture, especially at its happiest, are cutting themselves off from some of the very best parts of being American.

*

Tyler Perry's previous Madea videos are available online (Amazon doesn't sell them directly, but you can get to the dealers through their site).

If you search on "Tyler Perry" you'll find a listing for Diary of a Mad Black Woman, already on DVD. This is not the movie that's in the theaters right now.

I've ordered all of them, and look forward to seeing Perry's earlier work, so I can catch up on what most of the audience in the theater last week apparently already knew.

*

Warning: Virgin Classics is apparently encrypting their cds so that they can't be copied as MP3s. Since I do 99% of my listening on MP3 players, this makes my cd of Rolando Villazon singing Italian Opera arias useless to me.

There was no warning on the outside of the package that buyers would not be free to listen to this cd on their MP3 player.

I regard that as cheating the customer, since it is widely known that many customers expect to be able to do exactly that, and copyright law allows it.

Therefore I will never again buy a cd from Virgin Records. Cheat me once, shame on you. Cheat me twice, shame on me.

*

While I was in Boston last week I met a man named Dennis Livingston, who shares my love of the kind of pop music we now call "standards" -- you know, George and Ira Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer.

But Livingston has more courage than I do. He puts his money where his mouth is, writing songs in that mode and performing them.

At his website http://www.dennislivingston.com, you can sample his music, read his lyrics, and order sheet music.

The songs often have a Broadway feel to them, as if they came out of shows you've never seen. The words reflect the point of view of characters, rather like "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" by Rupert Holmes.

The performances are demos, not studio recordings. But they're good demos, especially the ones that Livingston sings himself.

My favorite: The impossible song "Thank You for Taking the Cat."


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