I see her hair first, an imposing globe of an Afro. From my perspective, just above her head, I watch enthralled as the top of her ’fro spins while she pirouettes on her way to the stage. Looking like the twenty-first-century love child of Billie Holiday and Angela Davis, she doesn’t just take the stage of the packed Atlanta nightclub, she takes command of it. She is an urban bush woman, her black minidress sliding dangerously off her left shoulder as she opens her mouth wide to belt out the Aretha Franklin classic “Rock Steady.” She roughs up the Queen of Soul’s smooth, finger-popping tune, giving it an intriguing edge. In this singer’s voice, I hear anguish and alcohol, urgency and yearning, and an audacity that is seductive. I want to know her story.
This is the opening scene of Tyler Perry’s 2009 film I Can Do Bad All by Myself
, and it is thrilling. But the fiery promise of this moment gets doused instantly by a quick cut to another woman—one whose silvery wig, oversized plastic glasses, and mannish chin are both amusing and unnerving. She’s on the other side of town, it’s the middle of the night, and intruders have startled her awake. “I know ain’t nobody breaking in this house,” she says, full of attitude. “Must be somebody new to the neighborhood if they gon’ break in my house.” It’s Madea. The thrill is gone.
The first woman, played by the always interesting Taraji P. Henson, tricks me into believing this is a movie for someone like me—an educated, thoughtful filmgoer who demands complexity and transcendence from my movies. But the appearance of Madea—played, as always, by Perry in drag—lets me know that the movie is aiming for a less demanding viewer, someone who’ll be satisfied with an uplifting message and a few good laughs.
Madea, a tough-talking but well-meaning matriarch, is a caricature of the strong black woman. As Perry presents her on-screen, she has little complexity; she is a sexless, friendless creature—all tough love, acerbic wit, and old-school wisdom. To be sure, those aren’t bad qualities in and of themselves, but they make the Madea movies lowbrow entertainment rather than thought-provoking cinema.
Tellingly, Madea disappears halfway through I Can Do Bad All by Myself—and, other than noticing the bad filmmaking that her sudden departure represents, I never miss her. Instead her disappearance highlights just how peripheral she is to the plot, mere comic relief to draw viewers into the more serious drama that Henson anchors. Henson’s character, April, is a boozy singer who just can’t seem to get herself together offstage. Madea’s home invaders, it turns out, are kids—April’s niece and nephews. The grandmother who takes care of them has gone missing, and they’re foraging for food. After giving them a beat-down, a tongue-lashing, and a good meal, Madea deposits the kids on April’s doorstep. Not the maternal type, April wants nothing to do with them. But Madea and some of the church folk—and the sudden appearance of a handsome stranger—eventually convince her to do the right thing. “Tyler’s title I Can Do Bad All by Myself is an excellent title for him because he does do bad all by himself,” quips cultural critic Touré.
The movie cycles through a series of predictable Tyler Perry tropes: the wounded woman, the sad child who needs protection, the predatory man. It is plagued by shallow writing, heavy-handed moralizing, the inevitable comeuppance for the bad guy, and more than one tear-jerking scene of redemption. In this movie, and throughout Perry’s oeuvre, the troubled woman solves her problems through the simplistic triumvirate of faith, family, and a “Good Man.”
I Can Do Bad All by Myself is packed with everything that haters hate about Perry’s movies. But—and this is a big but—it also embodies everything that’s good about Perry’s brand of cinema: Led by Henson, the cast is outstanding, as we’ve come to expect in Perry’s films. He coaxes a particularly moving performance from screen newcomer Hope Olaide Wilson, as the unprotected girl-child. Gladys Knight, Marvin Winans, and Mary J. Blige deliver rousing musical performances. And Perry even sneaks in a clever (and tastefully restrained) homage to Shug Avery’s prodigal-daughter scene in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (which Perry has said is one of his favorite films).
In other words, this movie, like the rest of Perry’s films, isn’t all bad. And Perry is not the devil—and should not be labeled and dismissed as such, which is what happens when influential black thinkers like Touré call him “perhaps the worst filmmaker in Hollywood” and “the KFC of black cinema.” Maybe it’s time to give Tyler Perry a break.