It’s easy to forget, inundated as we are by film after film after film depicting the lives of young, white American urban and suburban professionals, just how affirmatory going to the cinema can be.
We are all stuck in this big, crazy world, stuck with the same struggles and triumphs, heartbreaks and hopes. We all try to make sense of lives that seem fundamentally anarchic and arbitrary. Some of us have religion. Some of us have degrees. But all of us have the movies. We recognize ourselves on the screen, our experiences carefully pared, parsed and shaped into compelling stories. Art doesn’t only imitate life; it explicates it.
The only problem for us, living in Jamaica, is that most of the movies at the cineplex are like funhouse mirrors—you can kinda see yourself if you look from the right perspective, but it’s badly distorted. We recognize love; we don’t recognize Manhattan lofts. We identify with death; we don’t identify with Denver snow.
That’s why Tyler Perry is so invaluable.
Not because he makes great movies—he doesn’t. Not because his movies make a lot of money—although they do. Tyler Perry is invaluable because he uses cinematic pixie dust to turn authentic black experience into authentic black-oriented art. Also, because Madea is funny as hell (where she’ll probably end up).
Madea Goes to Jail is the latest film entry in Perry’s lucrative drag franchise. He developed the Madea character several years ago on the Atlanta, Georgia urban theatre circuit as a no-nonsense, sharp-tongued but benevolent grandmother. Perry cross-dresses to play Madea himself, adding to the lengthy roster of African-American men who have donned lipstick and leggings. It is a sad peculiarity of the American psyche that its black men must neuter themselves to be palatable to white audiences—Nat King Cole was soft and genial; Sidney Poitier, clean-cut and upright. Cross-dressing negates the supposed sexual threat of a virile black man; it’s not a coincidence that Perry stands an impressive six-foot-five.
However, Perry is smart enough to pull a bait-and-switch. Norbit this is not. Madea features only tangentially in Jail and other films. Perry uses his game granny to pack the house, but once the seats are full, he turns the cinema into a church to preach uplifting messages about the importance of family, community spirit and strong Christian faith.
Madea Goes to Jail is really about a young lawyer on the rise, Joshua Hardaway (played by Derek Luke) and a woman of the night, Candy (Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played Rudy on The Cosby Show and is still trying to cast off its shadow). They meet because Candy is charged with prostitution and the docket lands on Joshua’s desk. Joshua, engaged, is thrown back into his past, where he and Candy share a troubling secret.
Perry wrote, directed and produced the film, which also features David and Tamela Mann, Ion Overman, Viola Davis and Vanessa Ferlito. Go and see it, and then go and rent Meet the Browns or anything from the Perry oeuvre. They’re not masterpieces, but it’s better than buying a mirror. You’ve never looked so good.
Madea Goes to Jail
Written and directed by Tyler Perry.
With Tyler Perry, Derek Luke, Keshia Knight Pulliam.
103 minutes. Comedy.