Praise Jesus that Tyler Perry found Angela Bassett. In Meet the Browns, the actress brings her customary nuance to a stock role: a single mother raising three kids in the projects of Chicago. Burnt by life, Brenda (Bassett) is propelled to keep moving because the only thing she knows how to do is “make it”—an integral part of black womanhood according to Perry. Bless her conviction, Bassett believes in Perry’s arch writing, and in a series of great back-and-forths between Brenda and Mildred (Irma P. Hall), the film approaches greatness, fascinatingly articulating the dichotomies faced by people in the ghetto and the way support is at once lovingly and toughly passed down between generations of black women. But then a plot kicks in and Bassett is nearly wiped out by Perry’s typically histrionic sense of family dynamics.
Arriving in Georgia to meet the relatives of the deceased father she never knew, Brenda stands by while the Browns subject her to that Tyler Perry formula that necessitates one righteous maxim about God or family to follow every three barbs. Drowned out by dog-whistle performances by Jenifer Lewis, as Brenda’s loud-mouthed half-sister, and David Mann, as her colorfully-dressed half-brother Leroy, whose unconscious wit suggests a dark past Perry is unwilling to explore (to him, a gynecologist is a “gonorrheacologist” and Brenda came to Georgia to hear her father’s “will and testicles”), Bassett succumbs to bad habits, hitting her marks self-consciously, never moving ahead of the next beat, though her frequent slips may be understood as a collective show of survival (the less said about Brenda’s best chica, played by Sofía Vergara, or the cameo by Perry’s Madea, the better).
There’s richness to the way Brenda is just as wary of her son Michael (Lance Gross) selling dope and playing professional basketball, two different ways of pandering to black stereotypes, and Perry is showing an increased understanding of how images—the way they’re framed and edited—convey social reality (there’s an unmistakable grace to those early shots of Chicago’s trains traveling from the swankiest to the poorest parts of the city), but these flashes of sensitivity and poetry are fleeting. With Meet the Browns, we now know that a good performance can temper the broadness of Perry’s dramatic strokes, but I still await the genius that can save us from his shrill sense of humor.