Editor's Note: The Tyler Perry phenomenon is one that has had most critics, including those working for reelz.com, scratching their heads. They receive poor reviews and high criticism across the board but yet, without exception, they have all been monumental commercial successes. When Hawa Macalou approached me offering a different perspective on the Tyler Perry movies and an explanation for their success, I thought it was an idea worth exploring. What follows below is Ms. Macalou's counterpoint review of Tyler Perry's latest film, Why Did I Get Married?
When I saw my first Tyler Perry film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, it was obvious to me that it never have been made inside the studio system. It didn’t surprise me to learn later that all of Perry’s movies were developed and produced outside Hollywood, because they are all independent movies in the true sense of the word. While it’s usually the more highbrow art house movies that get all the ‘indie’ credit for their gritty style or taboo subject matter, what makes a movie genuinely independent is that it tells a story usually ignored by the monolithic culture of Hollywood.
Perry rarely gets credit for single-handedly reviving an all-but-abandoned genre: the Women’s Empowerment Movie. Tyler Perry’s movies are most often described as urban melodramas, but the real passion at the heart of his films is the journey of a downtrodden woman from destitution to success. In all of Perry’s films (except Daddy’s Little Girls - his weakest effort), a woman who has been exploited by the men in her life finds the strength to reclaim her self respect, inspiring everyone in her struggling community along the way.
In Why Did I Get Married? that transformation is undergone by one of the wives in an ensemble of couples struggling with various marital issues. Sheila (Jill Scott) plays the verbally abused and physically neglected wife of a sadistic cheater named Mike (Richard T. Jones). On a retreat with three childhood girlfriends and their spouses Sheila discovers that her husband has callously brought along his mistress. The ensuing confrontation leads to Mike divorcing Sheila and taking all the couple’s money with him. While Sheila’s girlfriends (played by Janet Jackson, Tasha Smith, and Shannon Leal) return home to sort through their own couples’ crisis with their husbands (Malik Yoba, Michael Jai White, and Tyler Perry) Sheila rebuilds her self-esteem by staying behind in the small vacation town, where she is wooed by the hunky Sheriff (Lamman Rucker).
Will Sheila succumb to the negative self-image fostered by her husband during their marriage or will she find the inner strength to rise above her desperate circumstances? This feminist, self-help question is at the heart of all of Tyler’ Perry’s movies, revealing that Perry is likely using his films to work through his own abusive past. Perry has been vocal about the tremendous respect he has for his mother for finally leaving his father after years of domestic violence, and he is clearly so compelled by this issue that he has essentially made the same movie several times.
The main beats in Perry’s movies are so similar, in fact, that his films are often criticized for being formulaic. Critics will inevitably dismiss Why Did I Get Married? for this flaw as well as for the other limitations of Perry’s filmmaking, and many of those criticisms will be fair ones. Is Perry’s style broad? Yes. Is it over the top? Definitely. On the nose? Absolutely. But in a world of vacuous Hollywood blockbusters and quirky-but-forgettable art house films, I’ll take a little soul in my movies over perfect execution.
There are moments of uplifting, life-affirming joyousness in all of Perry’s films. There are also moments of unflinching sadness, disappointment, and desperation. And at one point or another all of Perry’s movies, deliver some form of dramatic catharsis around one of his favorite themes: hope, community, faith, and - especially with Tasha Smith as the wisecracking Angela in Married? - the importance of laughter during dark times.
I wonder if what really makes critics so impatient with Perry’s movies is not their sometimes clunky execution but rather Perry’s unapologetic earnestness. In this age of snark and irony it can be uncomfortable to see tragedy and comedy delivered without any kind of ‘wink’ to take the edge off.
One thing is certain: whether you love Tyler Perry or you don’t understand what all the fuss is about, his films are organic hits. Perry’s commercial success has forced Hollywood to consider that there might be something audiences want that the entertainment industry is not giving them. And whenever Hollywood sits up and notices what movie fans really want, that’s good for all of us.