I just got back from a wildly popular place I've never been to before. If you're white, chances are you haven't either: Madea Land.
I rented "Madea's Family Reunion," (a No. 1 movie when it opened in 2006) then caught "Madea Goes to Jail" -- the No. 1 movie in America two weekends in a row, as of this writing. How were they?
Funny. Melodramatic. And mind-blowing in every aspect -- including the racial divide. Tyler Perry's audience is only 5% white. But let's start with funny.
There is something utterly loveable about a giant grandma with an attitude as big as her bosom. In "Family Reunion," a two-hour stage play filmed on a single set, Madea presides over a busy backyard, mumbling insults with the kindliest of smiles. "You look like a moldy Fruit Roll-Up," she tells a white-haired neighbor wearing a purple suit. As others coo at a baby, she coos sweetly too: "You just as ugly as you can be. Yes you is!" When asked by the reverend when she's going to start attending church, she replies, "As soon as your church opens a smoking section." But best of all is when this grandma starts emptying her beat-up pocketbook.
There's a handgun. And a slightly smaller handgun. And another handgun. All of which she treats like a bunch of hard candy, just something an old lady carries. Whenever she has a point to make -- such as, "A man should never hit a woman" -- she gently tells a cousin to duck, or move a little to the left, then whips out her .45 and aims it point-blank at the irritant. She is angry but happy, too, because she's got a pistol to help make her point.
Making points is what these movies are all about, and the melodrama makes them easy to understand. In "Family Reunion," one of Madea's granddaughters is about to marry a man for money, but he's abusive. Not good. Another granddaughter is about to leave her man because he doesn't have a job. But they truly love each other so that, too, is not good. Meanwhile, a middle-age single mom rebuffs a suitor because she has become hardened by life. Good? No. In "Jail" the point is equally clear: Don't judge people by the mistakes they've made (drugs, prostitution). Judge them by their character and help them to change.
What's mind-blowing about these hit-you-over-the-head movies is how fun and fresh they are, thanks to Perry's presence, yes, but also his casting. It's just amazing to walk through the looking glass into a movie where almost everyone, including the extras, is African-American -- and it's not "The Great Debaters." It's the Everyday Real Lifers, without a single white protagonist. It must feel like a real relief if you are black and usually stuck going through the Hollywood looking glass the other way.
Equally mind-blowing is the age range of the characters. In "Reunion," particularly, the beautiful young things are no more important than the older characters. Older, fatter characters, at that. And the fat isn't even an issue! Perry's people just come in different ages and sizes -- another bit of normal life that somehow seems completely shocking in the movies.
More than $60 million worth of ticket buyers didn't mind the fact that "Family Reunion" had pretty awful production values. And "Jail" is not going to win any awards for cinematic genius. So what?
The genius here is in combining straightforward, even hokey, storytelling with a cast that looks more like real life than any so-called reality shows. Race, age, size, lifestyle, income, wig choice -- the ones you usually see least in the movies are the ones you see most here.
Throw in a cross-dressing, pistol-packing grandma, and you just can't lose.