Ten years ago, when for-profit gospel musicals were smoking the so-called "chitlin circuit" in urban theaters across the South and up the East Coast, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote a measured assessment of their success and appeal for the New Yorker. The musicals were crude and moralistic, but like the vibrant Yiddish theater at the beginning of the 20th century, they made an enemy of boredom, and attracted throngs of black people who'd scorned mainstream theater. But they only worked because they were racially segregated: No white people could ever set foot in these theaters. "All the very worst stereotypes of race are on display, larger than life," Gates explained. "Here, in this racially sequestered space, a black audience laughs uninhibitedly, whereas the presence of white folks would have engendered a familiar anxiety: Will they think that's what we're really like? If this drama were shown on television—or any integrated forum—Jesse Jackson would probably denounce it, the NAACP would demand a boycott, and every soul here would swap his or her finery for sandwich boards in order to picket it."
Mr. Gates has been off before, but I'm not sure he's ever been this wrong. When they escaped the theater ghetto and landed in the "integrated forum" of the movies, these shows—and not just any shows, but the bizarrely enticing combination of gross-out humor, Christian piety, and worldly vengeance propagated by impresario Tyler Perry—raked in cash. The genre prototype, Woman, Thou Art Loosed, made almost $7 million in 2004. Perry threw his weight (that is, the fat suit he wears as a pot-smoking, gun-toting grandma called Madea) behind 2005's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and it grossed over $50 million. Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion, which he wrote, adapted, directed, produced, and stars in, made $30.2 million in its opening weekend. And the NAACP Theatre Awards just bestowed Tyler Perry with a "Trailblazer Award." So much for sandwich boards.
It's not that Tyler Perry shows aren't offensive. The stage version of Madea's Family Reunion includes a running gag about an ugly crack baby. Madea gets church ladies riled up by pretending to speak in tongues, then takes the piss out of Pentecostalism by rattling off the brands of a bunch of Japanese cars. More unsettling are the transparent minstrel references. Madea relentlessly mocks a neighbor for having no neck, calling him a monkey and warning others not to feed him. But her Dionysian charisma is exactly what makes Tyler Perry plays so irresistible. Madea is the lovable blasphemer who makes the Christian morality bearable.
The film adaptation of Madea's Family Reunion is utterly unlike the play. Nubile young women take the place of the play's middle-aged matrons. Someone—Tyler Perry himself or the nervous suits at Lions Gate, courting a crossover audience—excised the offensive content and made Madea a foster mother with the perfect recipe for tough love (what?!). It wasn't black protests that transformed Madea, but it may very well have been focus groups full of incredulous middle-class white girls like me.
Madea's Family Reunion also diverges from the winning formula of the previous movie. The guns are gone, and so are the reefers. The banshee attack Kimberly Elise waged against her evil husband in Diary is compressed to a scene where pretty victim Rochelle Aytes flings some hot grits in the general direction of her abusive fiancé and swipes his shoulder with a cast-iron pan. But the worst thing is the way Madea is sidelined for reverent poetry and goofy romance and the kitschiest "Parisian" wedding décor I've ever seen (human angels! hanging from the ceiling! avec lyres!). When I saw the movie at Pacific Place last Saturday, the atmosphere was congenial ("This is the most black people I've seen in one place since I moved to Washington!" one man declared happily), but then a theater employee walked in and said "fire" and the theater was reluctantly evacuated. Eventually we filed back in and watched the movie, which was neither as controversial nor as exciting as the fire alarm.