“Trapped in the closet” fittingly describes Tyler Perry’s lurid melodrama Madea’s Family Reunion, in which characters repeatedly stumble onto others’ dark secrets during living room chats. The movie is a home-is-where-the-heart-is ode to family and God masking its filmmaker’s bullying contempt for modern black culture. Perry preaches unity and unconditional love but lashes out against his upper-middle-class characters in typical fire-and-brimstone moralizing, forcing them to reveal humiliating indiscretions—domestic abuse, incest, rape—to a judgmental chorus of old-fashioned grannies. Overachieving husbands beat their trophy wives, gold-digging mothers give up their daughters to pedophilic suitors, and crippled victims of molestation become unable to love. (If only they went to church.) This derivative soap opera of bourgeois scuzz owes plenty to What’s Love Got to Do With It, but Perry’s trash lacks his inspiration’s style and courage; Angela Bassett as Tina Turner emblematically broke free of the recording industry’s male chauvinism, but Perry prefers to keep his characters trapped in post-Civil War guilt.
The tough-loving Mable “Madea” Simmons (doppelganger for and played in drag by Perry) leads Family Reunion‘s elderly gatekeepers of wisdom, opening her home to anyone in need of advice, including her granddaughter Lisa (Rochelle Aytes), who keeps her mouth shut about the daily beatings she receives from her investment banker fiancé Carlos (Blair Underwood). Through his character’s sass and the obligatory fat suit, Perry channels surprising warmth, and in one scene, endearingly compares Madea to Good Times’ strong-willed mother, Florida Evans. Yet by film’s end, this homage to black perseverance reveals itself to only be one of Perry’s many arrogant cries for a supposed “lost innocence.” When Madea finally puts on her family reunion, the oldest Simmons miraculously springs from bed and, witnessing the horrors of black youth, rings a bell to usher in Christian salvation. Right.
Perry works his Christian ideals into a black pop-culture vernacular, encoding faith in Brian McKnight songs and shots of soul food. Incredibly, he convinces Maya Angelou to give a reading of one of her poems during the film’s last act of forgiveness, when characters suddenly mend their atrocious histories for the more pressing need of family togetherness. The line “I love you, in and out, in and out, in and out” powerfully evokes black unity and strength Angelou once likened to a “steel rod,” but the harmony Perry feigns—set against a wedding and Sister Sledge’s predictable “We Are Family”—contradicts his self-righteous scolding of well-to-do blacks who fail to “see the light.” One look at a production photo of Perry wearing a T-shirt that reads “profanity-free set” puts the man’s misguided principles into clear focus: He would rather watch a young woman crack under the pressures of a capitalistic society than utter the word “fuck.”