May 12, 2006 | Comments ()

By Miscellaneous | Miscellaneous | May 12, 2006 |


The results are in — both the box office receipts ($21.9 million over the weekend, at latest tally) — and the angry responses from fans of the film who disagree with either my review, my intent/ability/right to review this film, or some combination of the above. Though a number of my reviews have generated heated response, pro and con, I’ve yet to see anything like the volume — or the vitriol — of the emails I’ve received regarding Diary of a Mad Black Woman. The messages also bring up a number of interesting issues that are related to the movie distantly, if at all. As such, and as the number of emails makes it unlikely that I would ever get around to responding to each correspondent personally, I felt a general response was called for.

[A note: All quotes below come from emails received from readers between 2/26/05 and 2/28/05. All spelling/punctuation/usage is as found; messages have been edited for space only.]

First, to clarify an important point:

To review a movie when your mind was already made up as to how the review would be written is a waste of time.

My mind is never made up when I go to a film; it’s rarely even made up when I sit down to write the review. I try to know very little about a movie before I see it; before being a critic, I’m a moviegoer like anyone else, and I want to be surprised. Before seeing Diary, I had seen one commercial on television and had looked at the Internet Movie Database long enough to see that it was based on a stage play by Tyler Perry, whom I hadn’t heard of before. I was actually looking forward to Diary, as I look forward to any film that shows a woman speaking her mind (I get to be excited this way just about three times a year). Part of my frustration with the movie is that the woman of the title rarely gets to express her own anger — it all comes from a man in a dress, which, frankly, I can do without.

Perhaps the most offensive issue comes up in the many emails with sentiments like this:

I hope you are a black person, because if you are not you need not to rate a show you know nothing about!! If you are black you need to ashamed of your self. Stick with the white films, maybe someone other than yourself will be impressed.

To anyone who feels similarly, I would suggest you ask yourself what you’d think if someone were to suggest a critic such as the gifted Wesley Morris, of The Boston Globe, or the estimable Elvis Mitchell, formerly of The New York Times, not be permitted to write about films with all-white casts (which would certainly limit their options, but that’s another issue). It is the job of a film critic to write about any and every film; to suggest that anyone can only judge the merits of works created by members of his or her own race is insulting to criticism and critics and is a limitation on the discussion of serious issues sometimes raised by films, of which I think race is among the most vital and troubling.

A further example, in a similar vein:

You are obviously a “freaking idiot”. You don’t have a clue about being black or a woman with, an abusive and controlling husband. […] You are either a gay male that wanna be a woman, or you are a racist with his head up his ass.

I can assure my readers that I am not “a gay male that wanna be a woman.” That I may be a “freaking idiot” is, obviously, open to debate. I have not had an abusive and controlling husband, but I know too many women who have, including several in my family. Perhaps to some these are not sufficient credentials, but I’ve never encountered aliens, witnessed genocide at first hand, or been a firefighter, and somehow or other I managed to review films about people who had.

And to this reader and others who have assumed that I am white and accused me of racism, I suggest that you read some of my other reviews of films that touch on issues of race or feature black actors in leading roles and make up your own mind. Some of those reviews are:

Barbershop 2
The Cookout
Fat Albert
Hotel Rwanda
Ray
Soul Plane
Taxi

And, to finally get into the subject of the film itself, and my actual remarks about it (something that many of my angry correspondents don’t actually do):

First of all, You do not know anything about how black men treat there women so for you to say that this movie was artificial you have to either be white or an Oreo

and

And unlike most white men… black men would rather live with trash than a good woman…she does not have to be younger, thinner or prettier. Also… alot of black and white men have families on the outside with the wife knowing.

Many readers seem to misunderstand what I meant when I wrote, “The story begins with a situation so artificial you can’t believe it was ever put down on paper, let alone filmed …” They apparently think that I was trying to imply that there’s no such thing as adultery or spousal abuse, that men mistreating women (black or otherwise) is a contrived situation. I meant nothing of the kind, only that the way it was presented in the film, with coincidence heaped upon coincidence and “irony” upon “irony,” was phony and cheaply manipulative. I stand by my assessment, and will continue to do so until I meet a woman who was dragged forcibly from her home on her 18th wedding anniversary and driven away by a man whom she’d later fall in love with and marry. To me, the fact that so many viewers related to the central situation — a woman cheated on and mistreated by her husband — is further evidence that the ridiculous exaggerations and over-the-top elements of the story were unnecessary and insulting to the audience.

I suspect the women who wrote the messages above spoke from painful experience, and I don’t want to mock them or deny the reality of their situations, but I disagree with the assumption that this is an issue that breaks down by race. A great many men (and some women) of all races will underappreciate and mistreat a faithful spouse, and many will abandon a relationship with a good woman or man to be with someone else who is widely considered to be worthless. Is this a reality in the black community? Undoubtedly. Is it also a reality in the white, Latino, Asian, and Native American communities? I’m afraid so.

I also don’t agree with the implication that it’s quite natural and believable that Charles could maintain a relationship for years with a woman living in the same city and produce two children with that woman without Helen ever suspecting. It would be pretty difficult for a woman like Helen, who is presented as intelligent and who has plenty of free time, not to realize that her husband was spending an awful lot of time with a second family. Also, her husband is shown as flaunting the relationship at his office, where all his coworkers appear to be aware of it. Assuming that none of them was decent enough to alert Helen, it is an unlikely coincidence that she would finally stumble into this very badly kept secret on the same day that he had chosen to toss her out on her ear. And that this day also happened to be their 18th wedding anniversary is a ridiculously forced attempt at irony. Charles obviously intended to replace Helen in their home for quite some time, so why do it on the precise date of their anniversary? Simply to be cruel? If that’s the kind of man he is, why didn’t she suspect anything sooner? People don’t become so malicious overnight.

And, on a related topic:

Are you saying that black people do not have capabilities to live in this type of setting?? First of all a lot of people … black and white live in homes beyond their means.

I assume that refers to this line from my review: “Charles McCarter (Steve Harris) is a vain and improbably successful Atlanta defense attorney, with a mansion the size of the Pentagon …” What I meant is that it’s unlikely that a criminal defense attorney could afford to live in such a ridiculously large home. This house is about as wide as a football field; I would guess it contains more than 50 rooms. While law is a lucrative field, very few lawyers can afford to live like the McCarters, and it’s unlikely that anyone who specializes in criminal defense could — the real money is in corporate law. It’s later explained that Charles became wealthy not through his law practice but through cocaine trafficking, which only raises more questions — how was he able to pass off his drug income? how, over their 18-year marriage, did Helen never suspect? as he became so very socially prominent, how did no one ever wonder where his money came from? — that are never addressed.

Another reader writes:

Just because you don’t understand his spiritual points that Tyler was making don’t mean that is wasn’t a sucess.

Well, I was raised in a churchgoing Baptist family, so I figure I have as good a chance as anyone of understanding Perry’s “spiritual points”; I’m just not sure that they make any sense. Having watched Helen make a great fuss over the strength she got from the Lord and how happy she was that Orlando was a good Christian man, I was shocked to see her physically abusing Charles when her chance came. Yes, I would want to beat the hell out of him if I were her, so I understood her motives, but I don’t have much respect for those who depend on God for strength and solace but then abandon Christ’s teachings when they get in the way of following their impulses. She repents later and apparently returns to a Christian way of life, but how are we to believe that she won’t change her mind again if she gets pissed off? It’s a pretty cheap kind of Christianity that you pick up or discard as it suits you, and that’s how Perry treats it in the film.

And here’s a criticism that I think has some validity:

I felt you could have given Mr. Perry a lot more respect as you would want others to give you. I felt like I was reading something the judges on American Idol would say to the young talented people who are looking for a break only to be put down feeling like this should be the end. I’m so angry with you right now that I have to reread your review again so I won’t be as heartless towards you as I am right now. He is a good black man dealing with issues in our race the best he can.

Yes, I could have given Mr. Perry more respect, and perhaps I should have. My review was written in frustration and disappointment, and I might not have been as hard on Mr. Perry had I cooled off before writing. I stand by my opinions of his work, however, and still think his ego was a major handicap for the film — why, for instance, did he have to play Madea himself, when the job could have gone to a talented woman of the appropriate age, someone like Irma P. Hall (who was much funnier in The Ladykillers than Perry’s Madea)?

Perry is most likely a decent, well-meaning person, but that doesn’t make him a good writer or actor, which, as a film critic, is all that I’m concerned with. At the top of this page, you’ll notice it says “Scathing Reviews for Bitchy People” (which is not, by the way, what I wish it said there, but our publisher assures me that people love it). This is a site intended for readers who are tired of critics who kiss ass and pander to movie studios, celebrities, and their publicists. If you want to read critics who love every movie they see, they’re out there — go find them. If you’re easily upset, you’re better off sticking with them and not reading my reviews. I’m not writing to please everyone — I do it to give my honest reaction to those who want to read it.

Finally, here’s a popular theme:

22.7 Million the first weekend! Critique that!!!!

and

It’s because of people like you critics who wouldn’t know a good movie even if it hit you in the face that this movie did so well!!!! Go Tyler Perry!!!!

Well, obviously critics like me have nothing to do with this film’s success — most of the reviews are negative — but most people probably don’t care one way or the other what critics say. They certainly don’t rush out to theaters in these kinds of numbers because of bad reviews, though. This movie succeeded based upon word of mouth, an existing fan base that had already seen Perry’s plays, and the rarity of movies geared toward a black audience. I think many black people (as well as Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, religious people of all faiths, gay men and lesbians, overweight people, little people, the disabled, and others who are underrepresented in mass culture) are anxious to see any representation onscreen of people who may look, think, or act like them. And many people seem to have connected quite intensely with this film, perhaps because it’s a rare attempt to capture the lives of lower-middle-class black Americans in a meaningful way. That doesn’t make it a well-made film; it just means that it helped to fill a void.

To all those who had a personal connection with this film — as a fellow movie-lover I’m glad you had that experience, even if you think I’m a terrible person because I didn’t like the movie. I would like to see our multiplexes featuring something for everyone, regardless of race, sex, religion, national origin, financial status, etc. And if a surprise hit like Diary helps bring that day sooner, I’m very glad of it.

But being a surprise hit didn’t make My Big Fat Greek Wedding (another film that succeeded based on word of mouth and its ability to attract an untapped audience) a good movie, and it doesn’t make Diary any good either. Popularity is not the same as quality.

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.If you hated his review and you still want to yell at him, fire away.

Diary Lovers Respond

Miscellaneous | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()




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