For those of you stopping by just to scope out which way my thumb is pointing on Meet the Browns, I’ll get it out of the way before mounting my soapbox (where I spend the majority of this review): It’s not a very good movie. It’s about a single-mom (Angela Bassett) living in the Chicago projects raising three children — all of whom have different fathers — and struggling to make ends meet while staving off eviction, an abusive, deadbeat ex-husband, and the influence of drug culture on her eldest, basketball playing son. She is called to small-town Georgia after her estranged father dies, where she not only learns that her father was a pimp (and her mother one of his prostitutes), but also that she has an eccentric extended family who prays for her. Through the power of the Lord, they help get her settled into a better life and a better husband (Rick Fox).
The truth is, I wouldn’t pay to see Meet the Browns. Hell, if it were free, I wouldn’t watch it. If it were airing on a plane and I’d run out of reading materials and the battery in my iPod ran out, I’d probably prefer to stare at the back of the seat in front of me or listen to a business traveler talk about his big Power Point presentation for two hours rather than watch Meet the Browns. It’s a less than mediocre film with zero laughs, little drama, and a plotline with all the originality and mystery of the Big Mac’s secret sauce (mmm…ketchup and mayonnaise).
Tyler Perry has caught a lot of flak on this site (and others) over the past several years — he relies too much on broad, crude comedy; he’s a misogynistic egoist; he’s entirely too melodramatic; his Christian messages are too heavy handed; and he’s a poor writer, a hack director, and a terrible actor. Meet the Browns does little to refute any of those points, and I suspect that this film was probably one of his better efforts (at least there wasn’t a lot of obvious misogyny in this one).
… but ….
This was my first Tyler Perry experience. Why? Because I’m a coward; I refused to assign myself his films because I didn’t want to deal with the shit that comes along with reviewing one of his movies. Very few filmmakers have inspired so much divisiveness, and while I’m all about alienating people, I’ve nevertheless been terrified of offering up an opinion on Perry.
But here it is: He’s a terrible movie maker; celluloid manufacturers and geriatric Muumuu designers should take out restraining orders on the man — he should be kept at least 100 yards away from moving pictures. At best, he’s the African American Paul Haggis, and that — my friends — is doing a large disservice to Haggis. Yet, with much reluctance, I do have begrudging respect for Tyler Perry because, at the very least, he’s depicting a segment of American society that rarely gets attention anymore: Impoverished black America, church-going African Americans who manage to hang on to their faith in a higher power even as they face violence on a daily basis and get evicted from one shitty apartment after another.
I mean, here’s the thing: I loved “The Cosby Show.” No other show on television has done so much to improve the ignorant mainstream white perception of black America; and “The Cosby Show” made it possible for a lot of other television shows featuring an all black or mostly black cast to thrive on network television, shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Martin,” “The Jamie Foxx Show” and other sitcoms that depicted upper-middle and upper-class African Americans and their families. But you know what we haven’t seen on network television since “The Cosby Show”? Aside from the little-viewed “Everybody Hates Chris,” there aren’t any shows like “Good Times,” “Sanford & Son,” “What’s Happening,” or “The Jeffersons,” programs that depicted the other end of the African-American socioeconomic spectrum. And the only noteworthy movies about African Americans nowadays are ones dealing with important historical figures (The Great Debaters, Ali, Malcolm X) or the flip side of a buddy-cop film (Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys). Most of the other so-called “urban films” are about men dressed as women, former rappers playing upper middle class Dads, or Disney-fied depictions of inner-city America featuring chiseled bodies in dance competitions.
At least Tyler Perry turns the camera on a part of America we don’t get to see much of anymore, except maybe as depicted/distorted by Jerry Springer, Judge Mathis and the five-o-clock news — and that’s probably why his films do so well at the box office. As horrible as they may be, they’re the only films that depict a kind of reality for a significant demographic. And hell: Maybe he’ll open some doors or provide some opportunities for filmmakers with actual talent to make films about the plight of underprivileged black America (and maybe they can make a few authentic ones about impoverished white America while they’re at it — you notice there aren’t any “Roseanne’s” on network TV anymore — and even on that show, at some point the Connors had to win the lottery when one the writers got tired of even approximating the reality of working class life).
Maybe I’m thinking about this because we’ve just lost “The Wire,” which dealt with race and class in such complex and challenging ways, but for the most part, the mainstream media, filmmakers, and even politicians continue to run away from addressing issues of race. Up until a week ago, I thought that was a sign of progress — we weren’t addressing it because maybe race wasn’t such a huge issue in this country anymore. In fact, I admired the way that Barack Obama seemed to have risen above race issues by making the color of his skin almost a non-issue in the campaign. And then Jeremiah Wright came along, and a lot of people got nervous, but I think it’s precipitated a really positive transition in the campaign. Suddenly, race was an issue, and instead of skirting it, Barack Obama confronted it in an unbelievable speech last Monday. Now, I have more than an incredible admiration for the man; I want to have his babies.
And in more profitable, tremendously less intelligent way, that’s sort of what Tyler Perry is doing: Confronting race. Instead of featuring black actors doing the same dumb shit that Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller can do, he’s featuring black actors playing real black people, or at least (in some cases) stereotypical caricatures of them. There’s nothing wrong, of course, in black actors taking on mainstream roles that don’t deal with issues of race, but there is also a lot of value in having black actors reflect their reality, be it the upper, middle, or lower class reality. That’s something I feel we’re losing on the whole. And while I’m not entirely sure if it’s better to have bad, sometimes dumb to the point of offensive movies about “the other black America” or have no films about that demographic at all, I guess I’m leaning toward the former, if only because it has the potential to inspire some sort of dialogue.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.The Other Black America
Film | March 21, 2008 | Comments ()