Tyler Perry’s plays bring the message of Jesus Christ along with some slapstick comedy involving farts, pot-smoking grandmothers who carry handguns in their purses, horny old men, and Mr. Perry dressed in drag. This routine lowbrow comedy gets shuffled in with simplistic, one-dimensional moral lessons for the urban community, such as having a recovering drug addict go straight when she sings in the gospel choir. In other words, card-carrying existentialists might want to avoid Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the feature film adaptation of Perry’s “positive values” play. Those spiritual values will go down easier here than Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, since none of the characters are whipped into filet mignon, but the message remains the same. To wit: God is great, follow the Ten Commandments, and it’s okay to bend the rules a little (in the name of crass comic relief or excruciating violence) as long as everything turns out wholesome in the end.
Awesomely popular within the Christian community, Perry’s film adaptation clearly preaches to the converted while presupposing its TV-sitcom humor will win (or convert) new fans. Considering the success of pro-Christ films in today’s red state market, he may well be right. But audiences won’t be grappling with faith; they’ll be swallowing it in a format that negates independent thought or the myriad gray-zone of human relationships. The good people are good, even if they’re temporarily misguided in the name of slapstick comedy, and the bad people are good too if they follow Christ’s teachings (otherwise they’re just bad, and easily disposable). That’s the world of Diary of a Mad Black Woman. It’s a pity, since the film’s setup allows for the possibility for a genuine ethical struggle.
Big-shot Atlanta attorney Charles McCarther (Steve Harris) kicks loving wife Helen (Kimberly Elise) out of the mansion when he succumbs to another woman. With no money, no prospects, and no claim of ownership over her husband’s possessions when he files for divorce, Helen is forced to return to her goofball family in the hood and, of course, her faith in Christian morality. The grand scale nervous breakdown implicit in the film’s title never fully gets realized, and the best we get is Helen domineering her husband after the contrivances of the plot have him ending up in a wheelchair. Will he recognize the error of his ways and recover the ability to walk again through God’s miracle? Not before she pushes him into the hot tub and nearly drowns him in the name of slapstick guffaws.
That’s less interesting than Helen wondering whether she should romance working-class hunk Orlando (Shemar Moore) when she’s still a Christian committed to her not-so-successful marriage. Perry dances around the issue by turning this subplot into a storybook romance and not giving Orlando any bad qualities whatsoever. This model of strong black maleness treats Helen so perfectly the viewer is lulled into ennui. The moral of female self-discovery—that there are nice guys out there and that she can learn to forgive her two-timing husband—is handled in a way that sucks out all ethical complexity. Elise and Moore are charming performers (and Elise may indeed be the most underappreciated and gifted actress of her generation), but their charisma can’t transform straw into gold. The pair’s chemistry lacks real sensual heat or genuine intimacy, which would perhaps be unwholesome.
Last year, Ed Gonzalez and I wrote critical arguments against The Passion of the Christ and had to deal with a bombardment of Christian hate mail as unwavering in its commitment as these films themselves. Our argument was that Passion itself was a film riddled with hate, so receiving more hate was unsurprising and, frankly, expected. Diary of a Mad Black Woman doesn’t carry hatefulness on its sleeve; but its so-called wholesome message is no less complex and troublesome. Just because a movie has “wholesome family values” doesn’t make it art, or entertainment, or amusing, or beneficial, and it raises the question: wholesome for what audience? Apparently for anyone who agrees with it. Does sending a one-note message of spirituality and one path toward righteousness open up a dialogue, or does it close off discussion? Ultimately, its moot to ask such theological and philosophical questions when it comes to Diary of a Mad Black Woman because, let’s face it, the movie fails on much more superficial levels: it just isn’t funny.