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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 21, 2007

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


Why Did I Get Married?

It's almost funny reading the reviews of Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? It's as if they all got the same email and copied whole passages into their reviews.

The dialogue is too on-the-nose. Storylines are predictable. Characters do just what you expect. Too obviously moral.

Now, I could go off on a diatribe about critical expectations: They have all been trained to value certain things in film, but what the critics forget is that, while most of those things are usually good, they are not always appropriate.

But that's an insider argument that I'll have with gatherings of writers.

What matters to us as movie-goers is this:

A filmmaker, like any other storyteller, is talking to an audience -- to a community. It is a community that is invited and defined by the film, so in a way it's tautological. "I make my movie the way my audience wants it, and I know who my audience is because they come to the movies I make."

Oddly enough, that argument is constantly trotted out, by implication, for every nasty, trite, boring exercise in artistic self-indulgence. "It's for the elite; it's not for everybody; and we know who the elite audience is because it's people who like this film."

The real problem right now with Tyler Perry's films is that between the reviews, and one other social problem, about three-fourths of his audience never comes to his films, and that's a shame.

Thirty-eight million at the box office, and I think his audience is too small?

Yep.

Here's how it happened: Tyler Perry had a vision of the stories he wanted to tell. Inside the African-American community, he could see that a deep need for their stories to be told was not being met. Most plays written to please the elites in New York said little to most black people in America, and as for film, with rare exceptions it was a wasteland for African-Americans.

So Tyler Perry, the actor, became Tyler Perry, the writer and comedian. He wrote plays that brought the black audience character types that they recognized, stories that dealt with real hopes and aspirations, real problems and tragedies, and the many telling details that people inside the black community recognized, and outsiders might not.

Then he scraped together enough money to finance productions of the plays, put them on ... and the audience came. And came back, bringing friends. He made videos of his stage productions, which sold well. And before long -- before there was ever a feature film -- word of mouth made Tyler Perry a rich, rich man.

So rich that when he needed a vast, over-the-top mansion for the villain in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, he used his own house.

And his fans love him for it. They're glad he's rich. They're proud that he's rich. Because they know he did it by creating something for them. And they're proud that they had the economic strength, as a community, to enrich a man who made the stories they wanted to see.

What were these plays?

On-the-nose dialogue, yes. Sermonettes scattered throughout the plays, yes. And just like the critics say, you are never allowed to forget that you're watching a play, not seeing real life.

Duh.

The funny thing is that in arty, difficult, elitist plays, it's considered a virtue that you are constantly made aware of the play-making. Between Brecht and Ionesco, the idea of plays being naturalistic was ground into dust -- except when it's done in a way that a large popular audience loves.

If too many people love the play, it stops being elitist and starts being pandering!

Let me make the right comparison here. Tyler Perry started writing his plays for a community that felt its identity strongly and with increasing pride; he barbed them for what they were doing wrong (in his view, of course), and affirmed the values that were good.

He had a moral purpose -- but he was writing for a community that absolutely believed in moral purpose, and was paying the price for the failure of large segments of the community to live by those principles.

More than that, he was talking to a community that received entertainment as a dialogue. Just as they answered back to the preacher on Sunday, they answered back to the play on the stage.

So when he brought up these moral topics and talked about them openly, they answered. They didn't mind being preached to -- preaching was one of their main forms of entertainment and social self-definition.

But above all, he put most of his preaching in the mouths of characters he played -- above all, the foul-mouthed, gun-totin', church-despising mama named "Madea."

Madea is in many ways the opposite of what African-Americans want to be. But she says, rudely, what most of them are too polite to say openly. She does what they wish sometimes that they could do. And because she's a clown character of the kind Will Kemp used to play in Shakespeare's company, she can get away with anything on the stage.

Wrapped in that character, Tyler Perry can break the "fourth wall" and talk directly to the audience. He can make asides that violate the verisimilitude of the story, that comment on the action as if he were a spectator instead of a participant.

This metadialogue is precisely what is sometimes criticized, but that's only because the sophisticated critics are so very unsophisticated.

The audience has no trouble recognizing when they're hearing Madea and when they're hearing Tyler Perry. They know when they watch the play that Tyler Perry is the preacher, and they take delight in his ability to switch back and forth between those two roles.

When it comes to watching Tyler Perry movies, the critics bring the wrong set of tools to the operation. They have rules in mind, which Perry breaks; and even though the critics purport to embrace filmmakers who "break the rules," they only mean they like it when the filmmakers break other people's rules. Their own rules, the critics' rules, are sacred and not to be violated.

This closed-minded group is rarely able to see past their own shibboleths and recognize that they are seeing something wonderful and rare: The birth of a new genre, the art of a community affirming its core values.

But that community I'm talking about is not the American black community. Or rather, not just the American black community.

It is the American religious community. It is expressed in Christian terms, but the values, not the terminology, reach across many religions.

It is the community of people who believe that their religion prescribes high moral standards -- that God is not just forgiving, but also demanding. They themselves try to live up to those standards, and help and encourage each other to do so also. They despise hypocritical piety; they pity those who live only for themselves and see them as miserable human beings until they learn to do better.

This group has always represented only a portion of the religious community -- but it has always been the portion that speaks for and represents the best that religion has to offer.

We live in a time when religion is primarily judged by the behavior of its hypocrites; what Tyler Perry offers is entertaining yet revelatory stories about people who really are trying to be as good as God wants them to be. It is easily recognizable, to those who actually live in a demanding religious community, as the truth about religious life: Tyler Perry is funny and on-the-nose and moralistic, but he's also accurate. Our experience is that the moral principles he talks about actually work.

Most critics who don't condemn Tyler Perry's work condescend to it. They talk about watching the movies with an audience that talks back to the screen, as if this required tolerance. They refer to the Tyler Perry audience as if their readers could not possibly belong to it.

In other words, they believe that Tyler Perry appeals only to black people, and that there are no white people who would understand; they also, apparently, assume that their readers are all whites, so that the black audience is "they" and not "you."

But I'm telling you that if you're a white person who believes in a God who expects you to behave well, then you are as much in the audience for Tyler Perry's films as any black person. If you are letting the blackness of the cast and of today's audience for these films keep you from attending, then you are letting the old, dying, prejudice-based division of American society keep you from the strongest voice currently writing films for you.

There's a reason why seriously religious films would surface first and foremost among the African-American community: The anti-religious Left in America descends from the old Civil Rights community. In their current incarnation as the politically correct elite establishment, they despise anyone who speaks openly of God -- unless that person is black.

In their condescending, elitist world view, religion is fine as long as it's tribal -- they just love "native religions" while detesting the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In their deep, abiding racism, the elitist Left relegates religious faith to "primitive" brown races. But since they view American blacks as a tribal people who cannot succeed at anything without help and handouts from the largesse of the Left, they never, never criticize black people for speaking in an openly religious way.

So black celebrities can go on Letterman or Leno or news shows and without a scrap of embarrassment speak of Jesus or God or going to church. But white people who did that would leave much of the audience in shock at their gauche, out-of-line assertion of their religion in public.

When Tyler Perry shows characters openly talking about what God wants us to do, speaking with a faith so certain that they don't have to apologize for it or explain it in any way, he is not preaching -- he is reflecting the way people in the American black community really talk.

Tyler Perry is far more realistic than most critics -- who generally come from or have long since surrendered to the elitist Smart People -- give him credit for. Much of what they call "on-the-nose" dialogue sounds exactly like real conversations I've had with practicing Christians or Jews of various races. It only sounds strange to people who treat religion as an illegal alien. (What's it doing here? How did it get into this conversation?)

Which is why I say that the audience for Why Did I Get Married? is only a third or a quarter of what it ought to be. It also ought to include all the white people who also live by faith in God and try to repent of their sins and treat other people kindly and honorably and with forgiveness.

If you're not Christian enough to see past the color of the characters' skins, then you need this movie all the more! Because you will quickly realize that unlike the Left's portrayal of blacks -- as alien, dangerous creatures possessed of dark secrets, whom no regular person (i.e., white) can really know -- Tyler Perry's realistic portrayal tells the truth: That while the cultures and histories may have deep, abiding differences, people of faith have the most important things in common.

So what about this particular movie? First, Madea isn't in it -- which moves it instantly to a more realistic level. Tyler Perry's bravery here was in not relying on his most reliable comic character. Instead, all the comedy arises out of believable characters saying believable things.

Instead of Madea, the outrageous statements are mostly made by Tasha Smith as Angela, who is simultaneously an outrageously bossy, domineering wife -- and a completely honest, uppity black woman. Playing her husband, a former professional athlete sidelined by an injury and reduced to working as a hairdresser in his wife's salon, is Michael Jai White, who manages to be henpecked and weak without every becoming contemptible -- and when he asserts himself at last, he earns the cheers that Angela has been getting all along.

Tyler Perry plays the longsuffering, uxorious husband of Diane (Sharon Leal), a woman who has believed the contemporary lie that women should all derive their happiness from succeeding in their careers. Her devotion to work and neglect of her husband and child is invisible to her; her contempt for his deep love of and wish for children makes her one of the most selfish characters we've seen on the screen -- which is a condemnation of American elitist culture, since her behavior is exactly what all the talk shows keep telling women they "can" do (and, by implication, must do if they are to amount to anything).

The third couple, played by Malik Yoba and Janet Jackson (who is surprisingly good for a singer-turned-actor), seem to be the most "together" of the four pairs -- but they are actually riven by deep wounds arising from the death of their only child less than a year before.

The fourth couple are the ones most like what we saw in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Richard T. Jones, who was much loved in our house during his days on Judging Amy, plays the over-the-top selfish man whose open scorn for his overweight wife, Sheila (Jill Scott) leaves you wanting to cringe and laugh at the same time. Sheila, meanwhile, is so hammered that she actually puts up with and makes excuses for his open scorn for her ... until, at last, it is so blatant she can no longer pretend that he loves her.

One of the points Tyler Perry makes is that not every marriage can or even should be saved. There is behavior so cruel and destructive and outrageous that no marriage is possible with a partner who behaves that way. But because Tyler Perry is a serious Christian, he does not leave such characters unredeemed or unredeemable. Even when the marriage can't be saved, the person can be.

Lamman Rucker does the extroardinarily difficult job of making the rescuing angel character -- a Colorado sheriff who sees the value in Sheila that her husband cannot see -- completely believable; when he kisses her, we believe that such a man really would see past the physical body and love the woman.

And while Denise Boutte's character, Trina, is never redeemed (the movie can't do everything, as the homewrecker she does a splendid job.

This is Tyler Perry's best work so far. And whatever shortcomings the script might have, he overcomes it by casting his characters brilliantly. The only weakness is that he himself is in the film. Directed by somebody else, he would almost certainly do a better job of acting; but there is nobody to help him get past his moments of falseness left over from playing clowns. He plays down too much, because he is trying so hard not to be Madea.

In all his years of playing extravagant clown parts, he has neglected his realistic acting. Mind you, his performance is not bad; he's actually quite good. But he's not up to the level of the rest of the cast, as I think he could be if he were in a film directed by somebody else.

But that's a minor quibble. Tyler Perry has become a very rich man doing exactly what he does. (Shakespeare acted in his own plays, too, but we never read anyone declaring him a brilliant performer.)

Tyler Perry's work has transformed black theatre and black film in America. But it should be creating a genre of adult comedy about serious Christian characters, regardless of race. White people, get ye to the movie theater and put more money in Mr. Perry's pocket -- in the process, you'll be entertained, encouraged, revivified in your religious life. We who are trying to free our lives of sin in order to find true happiness are not alone -- Tyler Perry's movie proves it.

Finally, though, every married person who sees this film will walk out of the theater thinking about their answer to the question the title asks: Why did I get married? How has it been working out?

You'll think about the 80/20 rule and see great wisdom in it. You'll compare yourself and your spouse to the characters and doubtless think, "I need to be more like that," or, "Thank heaven I didn't make that stupid choice," or, "Do I do that? Am I like that?"

Those are questions worth asking. And in a culture where Hollywood only deals with marriage in order to attack it -- either openly, in savage anti-marriage diatribes, or subtly, in comedies in which faithful spouses are vaguely idiotic and religion has no place in any families except the pathological -- it is refreshing to go to a movie that thinks marriage is good and that good people can make it work, if only they'll behave decently and kindly toward each other.

*

Our family got the game Tricky Town for Christmas last year, but because it has a Halloween theme, we didn't get around to playing it till this past week.

Our loss. Because this really is a fun family game -- age 8 and above.

It looks at first like a standard Parcheesi-based game: Move your pieces around a path till you can get them safely home.

What makes it more interesting than, say, Sorry (the best of the Parcheesi clones) is the way the pieces have to maneuver in relation to each other.

Each player controls a family of four -- a dad, a mom, and two kids -- trying to get them safely through the neighborhood picking up as many treats as possible.

However, the two child pieces can never be more than five spaces away from at least one of the parents. This greatly complicates your possible moves and makes the game depend much more on your own tactical choices instead of random chance.

All even numbers are treated as doubles -- you can either move one character the full value, or move two characters half each.

The game ends when one player gets his whole family safely home -- but that player isn't necessarily the winner! Instead, you count up your treats, and that's who wins.

As with Sorry, you can do things to the other players -- but as often as not, the meanest things you do actually end up helping them.

If you can't find the game locally, you can probably order it online where we order most of our games: FunagainGames.com. Or not -- it might be temporarily out of stock at this time of year. If so, you can go to Kelmar Games's own site, where the publisher will sell it to you through your PayPal account (http://www.kelmargames.com/trickytown/buy.php).

With its Halloween theme, Tricky Town will probably be brought out to play in October -- which is a shame, because the game action will maintain interest any time of year.

Whether your family pays off the winner in real treats is entirely between you and your dentist.


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