The wiser among Generation Douchebag lament the representation of their culture by the likes of Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan. while the majority herald them with banners of “OMFG! U R SO KEWL!” and raise them on pedestals so they can get better upskirt shots. Hipsters were given the golden goddess of Diablo Cody to worship, and when the rest of America shone upon her, they tore her ironic leopard skin coat to tatters and ripped chunks of dyed black hair and stripper-tatted skin from her still-screaming corpse. Black America has chosen to receive Tyler Perry as their poet laureate and flood the tabernacles of the local theaters to sing his praises. He dons a Medea wig and spits in their faces, and they love him for it.
Tyler Perry has no respect for his audience, and it is obvious by the way he blatantly stereotypes them in his films. Since nobody minstrels about in hood rat gear, wearing bling, talking about bitches and busting caps, somehow black America feels comfortable accepting Perry’s rosy portrayal of their people. In Tyler Perry’s version of black America, all spouses are unfaithful. If a man doesn’t provide for his family, he’s not a man. If his wife calls him on that, it’s OK if he backhands her because it’s all about respect. It doesn’t matter what you say or do, just as long as you have faith in Jesus, you quote scripture, and then everything will work out. Black people aren’t allowed to be successful unless they are willing to be underhanded, manipulative, or shady. But it’s OK, because the only noble black person is a poor black person struggling to get ahead. And more likely than not, white people will save them.
That’s the sinister message that seems to be the forefront of Tyler Perry’s latest opus The Family That Preys. Tyler Perry is a fucking genius, there’s no two ways about it. He’s the male counterpart to Oprah Winfrey, and he’s learned how to play her game. Perry has already captured black America to his heart, and now he’s after the white conservative church-going folks. He knows most of his detractors are going to naysay him no matter what he puts forth, so he doesn’t even try to appeal to them. He knows his audience like the back of his hand. He doesn’t have to make exciting films. He just has to make the same film, over and over, and they’re going to line up. Now he needs to branch out, by appealing to the good people who go to church every Sunday, who understand the importance of conservative family values, who know a woman’s place is in the home, at her husband’s feet, and who understand that discipline comes at the end of a belt. His beacon of attraction is Kathy Bates.
For this feature, he’s chosen to replace Medea with Charlotte Cartwright, a rich white woman who rules over a construction empire. Charlotte is able to be both sassy and wild-spirited but also austere and vigilant. With one hand, she hugs while holding her special Sunday hat, and with the other, she can beat your ass with her iron fist. She is your archetypical southern aristocracy, and Kathy Bates embodies every fiber of her being. Balanced against her is Alice Pratt (Alfre Woodard), a matriarch in her own right, a noble black woman who owns a diner called “A Wing and a Prayer.” She bathes and feeds the poor, quotes scripture, and tries to mediate her two spirited daughters.
To craft a Tyler Perry movie, the recipe is very simple: Boil a Lifetime movie. Add five jokes that relate to black culture. They don’t even need to really be jokes per se. You can actually just mention black people, but not rappers. They need to be people like Morgan Freeman or Oprah Winfrey. Say Praise Jesus a lot and set two scenes in a church; one has to have a gospel choir. Make sure you give it a Hallmark-safe message. And you’ve got the top movie at the box office. It’s not that he’s a terrible filmmaker, so much as a lazy one. He doesn’t have to try, so why should he? He can slog through trite dialogue, tennis-balling close up shots in tense scenes, or having actors Shatner-enunciate their lines so you know they’re really serious. At this point, he’s a brand name like James Patterson or Nicholas Sparks. You know exactly what you’re going to get from the shiny labels on the packaging.
Perry decides to go for the drama. He comes from a playwriting background, so he knows if you stuff dreary messages down someone’s throat for a number of hours, you might as well put subtitles and Emily Mortimer in your film. Instead, he intersperses scenes of on-the-nose, heavy-handed proselytizing with scenes of ridiculousness. Usually this means somebody’s dancing or doing the cobra neck.
The movie opens with a wedding between Alice’s daughter Andrea (Sanaa Lathan) and her construction worker beau Chris (Rockmond Dunbar). They are getting married in the backyard of Charlotte’s palatial estate, mostly as a dig at her corporate nepotist son William (Cole Hauser) and his eloped bride Jill (KaDee Strickland). We cut to upstairs where Andrea is getting prepared with help from her sister, Pam (Taraji P. Henson). Andrea is pissed she has to play step and fetch for the white lady to feel like Mammy (I’m not racist — this is actual dialogue from the movie) while lamenting the fact Charlotte didn’t pay for a new wedding dress. Pam is disgusted with her sister’s greed, which pretty much stay their characters for the rest of the movie. That’s the beauty of Tyler Perry’s characters: they might as well have Smurf names like Greedy and Sleazy. Meanwhile, Chris is expressing his concern to Ben, Pam’s husband, who’s played by Tyler Perry. This movie may have been a giant actor’s real attempt to show that Tyler Perry can play a part other than Medea. Instead of a dress, he decides to wear a bicycle helmet covered with Brillo pads and spends the entire movie talking in a sultry monotone as the voice of reason. There is no wedding scene, we just cut immediately to the reception where William blatantly hits on Andrea in front of her new husband, delivering the line, “I’m sure we can find a position for you.” If this was a porno, a pizza boy and plumber would be running a train on a nurse.
The rest of the movie occurs four years later. Chris and Ben work for Cartwright Construction as grunts, but Chris wants to open his own construction company (his Smurf name is Big Plans). Ben just wants to stay the course. He’s got a steady job and a happy home, and that’s good enough for him. Andrea works for William Cartwright, who’s trying to become CEO of his mother’s company. Chris wants to ask William to invest in his new venture, but Andrea doesn’t want him to bother William. Andrea, who thought it beneath her to accept handouts from white people, is perfectly willing to take William’s position, which is predictably underneath him in a hotel bed. Andrea belittles Chris because she’s the breadwinner in the family, but at the same time she won’t help him get ahead in his own business ventures. Andrea’s got a secret bank account she’s been filling with gifts from William. Pam is pissed at Andrea because she’s been babysitting Andrea’s son at their mother’s diner, and Andrea won’t pay either of them a dime. She’s successful while they struggle. Pam wants her husband to make more of himself and join with Chris, but Ben just wants to sit down and not rock the boat.
Turning this into a bad episode of Dallas, Charlotte goes behind her son’s back and hires Abby (Robin Givens), a successful businesswoman, to act in her interests as COO of the company. Robin Givens’ role in the movie is to deliver one speech berating Andrea for being a sister who gives hardworking sisters a bad name, then acting as Vanna White with a Peter Petrelli smirk to Charlotte’s deus ex machina machinations. Other than that, Charlotte’s got an entire peripheral plot where she and Alice decide to drive cross-country in an old convertible as comic relief to the rest of the dreary weak soap opera subplot. It’s your typical odd couple road trip so Tyler Perry can make his requisite five-black-people references. Charlotte wants to drink hurricanes in New Orleans so they can make a left-handed Katrina joke. Alice drinks only water. Charlotte wants to go drink tequila shots in a country western bar and dance with pure breed, white cowboys. Alice makes Charlotte get a baptism in a river in the middle of nowhere with a conveniently placed Baptist reverend and choir. Charlotte wants to go to a strip club. Alice throws holy water on a stripper and tries to beat another one with a bible. At one point, I leaned over to my girlfriend and asked, “I wonder what she’s dying of.” The answer turned out to be early on-set Alzheimer’s.
The rest of the movie progresses to an expected and utterly cliched finale, showing just how little Tyler Perry thinks of black people in general. But why should he, when black audiences LOVE the slurry he’s feeding them? During one climactic scene, Andrea dresses Chris down in front of crowded diner. She tells him she’s been get jackhammered for years, how he can’t support her, and that he’s not a man. Chris’s response is to backhand Andrea so hard she actually flies over the lunch counter and smashes into the wall. In front of her sister and mother. And a diner full of people. And the audience at the screening I was at APPLAUDED. Black people can settle their women with a strong hand. That’s how you respect a black woman. You pimp slap her like the fucking Hulk.
Even more disturbing is the subtle undertones of Perry’s underlying message, which seems to be black people cannot be successful without the help of white people and they should know their place. The most sympathetic and level-headed character might be Ben, whose entire attitude is to never have ambition and to stay working blue collar, even when he’s more than qualified. Of the career-minded black characters, we’ve got Andrea, who essentially fucked her way to her current position and ends up cuckolded and begging for her man back. Or there’s Abby, who only gets her position at the company because of the kindness of Charlotte’s black-loving heart. Charlotte is never nice to a single white character in the movie because she expects a certain ruthlessness out of them. When white people show emotion, they’re weak, as is the case with Jill, Williams’ beleaguered wife. Of the black women, Charlotte loves them because they amuse her with their spunk. Abby is eminently qualified, she worked hard, and Charlotte hires her to essentially act as her henchperson. And Alice turns out to be a millionaire, but the only reason this happens is because she invested in Charlotte’s company at the behest of a white man she had been helping. Meanwhile, Perry wants us to cheer at the end for Chris, who stole his wife’s money and slapped her.
The Family That Preys has been called Tyler Perry’s best movie, but that’s a little like being the prettiest girl in the flag corp. The man’s a brilliant filmmaker, in that he gives his fans what they want or rather what they think they deserve. He’s like Taco Bell. It’s not great, but it’s a safe bet, you know what you’re going to get each time, but don’t be surprised at the indigestion the next day. There are plenty of black artists out there, like Aaron McGruder and F. Gary Grey making interesting films, doing quality work, but nobody’s buying their wares. Instead, Tyler Perry makes millions by making a mockery of his own people, telling them they should be proud to not have ambition, and it’s okay to beat their wives and sleep around. He has the audacity to act as if he’s the sole conduit for the voice of Black America. As long as they are willing to accept it, he’ll never be stopped. Because a brother’s gotta get paid, son.
Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.
Tyler Perry's The Family that Preys / Brian Prisco
Film | September 15, 2008 | Comments ()