AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
Tyler Perry's character Madea has occupied a unique and polarizing space within Black American culture for more than two decades. A gun-toting elderly lady who curses and often finds herself at odds with the law, Madea has been criticized for playing into harmful stereotypes by some and beloved by others. Now, after a brief absence, she's back in her 12th film, now streaming on Netflix - "A Madea Homecoming." And like pretty much all Tyler Perry content, it straddles the line between being extremely topical and extremely old-school. I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about "A Madea Homecoming" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
Joining us today is J.C. Howard, a producer on NPR's How I Built This. Welcome back, J.C.
J C HOWARD, BYLINE: Hello, hello.
HARRIS: And also joining us is co-host of the podcast "FANTI," journalist Tre'vell Anderson. Welcome back, Tre'vell.
TRE'VELL ANDERSON: Hellur (ph).
HOWARD: I was waiting for the hellur - so glad.
HARRIS: Yes. Thank you. Thank you for that. That gets us right in the mood.
HARRIS: So in "A Madea Homecoming," Tyler Perry steps into the wig and fat suit of his signature character, Madea, a boisterous old Southern lady with a huge family. Perry also dons a ton of prosthetics to play Madea's crude brother, Joe, whom she lives with. Now, the occasion for this homecoming is the college graduation of her great-grandson Tim, played by Brandon Black. He's nervous about sharing a secret with his family, though. He's gay.
Tim arrives for the festivities at Madea's house with his best friend and roommate, Davi, who is played by Isha Blaaker. Meanwhile, Tim's mom, Laura, played by Gabrielle Dennis, is recently divorced and ready to move on from her ex and Tim's dad, Richard, who is played by Amani Atkinson. And in an unexpected international crossover, Davi's family from Ireland is also in attendance - his great-aunt Agnes, played by Brendan O'Carroll, and cousin Cathy, played by Jennifer Gibney. Agnes and Cathy are actually long-running characters on what could be considered the Irish analog for the "Madea" cinematic universe, "Mrs. Brown's Boys." And per usual, Perry wrote and directed the film in addition to starring in it.
Now, J.C., let me start with you. What did you think of "A Madea Homecoming"?
HOWARD: Well, let me first say that I had every intention of liking this movie. I have seen about a third of Tyler Perry's feature films and was admittedly disappointed more often than not. But I was optimistic about this one, and the reason I was optimistic is because I used to really enjoy Madea. Back in the kind of late '90s, early 2000s, Tyler Perry was writing and acting as Madea in stage plays, and these were filmed and released on VHS and DVD. And back in those days, I was all about it - like, truly. I remember watching with my mom and my grandmother and feeling like I was seeing something that actually reflected a slice of my life that I didn't get to see in TV and movies, this kind of faith-adjacent, Southern, old-school Black culture that was, honestly, not unlike my, you know, cousins or aunts or grandmothers and folks I knew from church. And the plays always had these, like, electric moments and asides of what felt like improvised lines or conversational monologues, and all of that was underscored by a crowd that was engaged.
HOWARD: They were groaning and gasping and laughing uproariously. And I think that the absence of that, the absence of the audience, is what robs a lot of Tyler Perry's work of its relevance. Like, the timing of all the jokes in the movie, the repetition, all of it, I feel like it just needs a live audience. And for me, a lot of it just falls flat while I'm sitting alone watching at home on Netflix.
In some ways, I would probably argue that his work has never actually been adapted for the screen. The format is certainly different. You know, they're in high-def. They're on a soundstage. But the writing is the same. The jokes are the same. The acting is the same. Like, I feel like half of the cast is playing to seats in the balcony, but the camera is five feet away. So it's like, you know, they're very much overplaying a lot of these things. So honestly, I tried to like it. I really did. But to me, it came across as tired. I'm tired. That's how I feel about it.
HARRIS: Well, I love that point you make about how integral the audience is to this. And the audience is partially why Tyler Perry has been able to continue making these movies for almost 20 years now. I'm glad that we have at least one person who wanted to come into this optimistically.
Tre'vell, I'm not sure where you stand, but I'm curious to hear what you thought of "A Madea Homecoming."
ANDERSON: So my disclaimer is that I have seen every Tyler Perry play.
ANDERSON: I have seen just about every Tyler Perry movie, specifically the Madea ones. I didn't really watch "Boo! A Madea's Halloween." It wasn't for me, you know...
ANDERSON: ...Or "Boo 2!," the sequel. But I say that to say - because similar to J.C., my background is the plays, and that type of play is, I think, super kind of iconic and legendary when we're starting to think about, you know, the foundation that is the Tyler Perry empire...
ANDERSON: ...Right? The problem with the movies, and particular the movies over the last, I'd say, five to seven years, is, to J.C.'s point, it's a recycling of some of the same jokes that are in the plays, right? And because there is no audience, it doesn't necessarily hit. But also, the times have changed.
ANDERSON: Why are we still making the same jokes that you were making back in the late '90s and early 2000s?
ANDERSON: My thoughts, particularly on "A Madea Homecoming" - you know, I was not entertained. I was offended just a little bit. Like, I was like, really?
ANDERSON: Like, really? We're doing this in the - 2022, the year of our Lord? Really?
ANDERSON: But, again, Tyler Perry is one of those creatives who takes his power from the community that has, you know, lifted him up - right? - Meemaw and Big Mama and usher board - right? - who are taking buses to go see his plays and go see his movies. And he feels as if he speaks directly to those people. And so therefore, a lot of the criticisms that we have of his work he doesn't really care to engage with. And I think because of that, time and time again, we get these films that really just don't feel current or modern. They feel like a period piece in a lot of ways.
HARRIS: Yeah. There is definitely this weird juxtaposition between what Tyler Perry has done for Black performers, and especially actors and actresses who were not being noticed in the way that they should have been back in the day, whether it's Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Tika Sumpter - all these actors and performers who did not get their due. And look; I applaud him for that, and I think he's done a lot of good things outside of the realm of film.
As a filmmaker, my goodness, it's hard for me to get behind this. And look; I know I'm just - this is decidedly not for me. I am not this audience. I did not grow up, you know, in a super-religious household. My - I think the first time I even, like, kind of heard about Madea and Tyler Perry was probably from my hairdresser. Like, I remember in my salon, they'd always be selling copies of the plays in the hairdresser. And, like, I've seen a handful of the "Madea" films, and I've seen probably more of the non-"Madea" films that he's done. But there are scenes here where, like, in one cut, like, the lighting is completely different than the other. And, like, if you're switching back-and-forth and editing - and I'm just like, how is this...
ANDERSON: Oh, he don't care about that.
HOWARD: Yeah. Yeah. Right.
HARRIS: I know, and it's just - it hurts my heart because I, like - because I - it's been a while since I've watched a "Madea" movie, but I feel like they've somehow gotten worse than they were before. Like, it's sillier. This is way more comedy forward, whereas the other ones tend to have a little bit more drama and melodrama. And those were the parts that, like, even in the films that I don't think work, I still think I can appreciate sort of the more melodramatic flairs of the, like - of something like "Diary Of A Mad Black Woman." And here, it's just like, all - it's so comedy heavy. And he said, right now, we're all depressed, and the world needs more comedy. And I was like...
ANDERSON: We didn't ask for this one, hon.
HARRIS: We didn't ask for this.
HOWARD: That's right. Yeah.
HARRIS: I also, like, I want to hear what you all think about the way in which it really tries to insert some topical commentary on politics because there was some copaganda (ph) going on in here that I could not get behind. One of the characters - Laura's sister, Ellie, is played by Candace Maxwell, and she is a police officer. And she has some, you know, back-and-forth with the Joe character, who is also played by Tyler Perry. I actually want to play a clip of this. This is when they were at - a scene where they are in Red Lobster, as they mention several times in the film.
HOWARD: That's right. Yeah. Gosh.
HARRIS: Yeah. So let's just play a short clip of the back-and-forth between Ellie, the police officer, and Joe.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MADEA HOMECOMING")
CANDACE MAXWELL: (As Ellie) The same way that we're saying defund the police, there are criminals saying the same thing. That's why crime has gotten so much worse.
TYLER PERRY: (As Joe) You want me to feel sorry for you out here? No, I ain't feeling sorry for y'all.
MAXWELL: (As Ellie) Well, now you're doing the very thing that you don't want us to do. You don't want them to judge all Black people as criminals, but you want to judge all police as killers.
HARRIS: As someone who has not seen a "Madea" movie in a while, is this typical, addressing these sorts of things, or is this a newer phenomenon for him?
HOWARD: Yeah. I mean, honestly, one of the things I thought was weird about this film was that it probably thinks of itself as unproblematic. You know, like, the movie practically gives itself a standing ovation for the way it ultimately embraces its first openly gay character.
HOWARD: But meanwhile, at the same time, there are homophobic jokes peppered throughout some of the earlier scenes and some fatphobia. And I can only imagine the self-satisfied pats on the back that Tyler Perry gave himself for the way he argues for kind of a moderate position of police funding and Black Lives Matter. And I just - it sets itself up as a real opportunity to take on unspoken homophobia. It sets itself up as an actual way to discuss the conflict of having family members who are police while also having a desire for police reform. But ultimately, it actually doesn't do much to address either of those things, and both of which are a result of Uncle Joe, right? Like, Uncle Joe is kind of central to all of these points, and none of it gets addressed. So I kind of just have the question of why did we need Uncle Joe? Why do we ever need Uncle Joe? I feel like the Black community would be better if we had less Uncle Joes in our family. I'm just saying.
ANDERSON: You know, here's the thing. I think that Tyler Perry - what he thinks he's doing is creating work in a style that, like, Norman Lear popularized - right? - with all of those old-school shows. "The Carmichael Show" is a more recent example - right? - in which you have these tough conversations, but different people in the family have a different take or a different perspective on whatever that issue as a means of working through it. The problem with what Tyler Perry does, though, and what ends up on screen is nothing is really given the weight that it needs, right? This Uncle Joe character in this movie is a caricature - right? - of Black Lives Matter activists, is what it is, unfortunately.
ANDERSON: And even that little clip that we just heard, that is the extent of the discourse around...
ANDERSON: ...Black folks and the relationship with police, even though one of the family members is a cop. That is the extent of it. And that is the problem - one of the problems that I have with this movie is because it very much so paints itself as a - and then I - let me also say here, this is why Tyler Perry need to stop writing everything by himself.
ANDERSON: In the beginning of his career, sure, we could applaud this kind of one-man band that he was able to do. But when it - when the rubber meets the road now, it means that he's perpetuating and putting out these narratives that ultimately don't actually hit on the conversation he's trying to have and I think is actually fairly problematic in terms of our experiences as Black folks in this country right now.
And you brought up, J.C., the gay character - right? - played by Brandon Black, the first openly gay character, at least, in the Madea Cinematic Universe. But we all know the homophobic jokes that have been made since the play days, right? They used to call Mr. Brown a tambourine player.
HOWARD: Tambourine player. That's right, yes. (Laughter) That's right. Yep.
ANDERSON: And we all know what that means, right? But even the set up around the gay character, there are all of the jokes. And I think we're supposed to believe that the fact that none of the family members are up in arms about that character being gay, that is supposed to be, like, this progressive nod...
HOWARD: Yes. That's right.
ANDERSON: ...To us being and...
ANDERSON: ...Living in 2022. But then you'd spent the whole beginning of the movie leading up to that part playing into all of these different stereotypes about gay folks.
ANDERSON: It's not hitting on what it's supposed to be hitting on is what it comes down to.
HOWARD: It's not giving.
ANDERSON: It's not giving, as...
ANDERSON: ...The kids say today. But I think it's also important for us to recognize that there are plenty of Black folks in our families, in our communities who are looking to this movie, and they think it's amazing. They think it's great.
ANDERSON: It hits on what they want it to hit on. It articulates their feelings and beliefs about Black Lives Matter or about cops or about gay people or whatever the case may be. And so we have to recognize that as well.
HARRIS: It's such a paradox, a weird place to be in, especially in this moment. Fifteen years ago, I was more annoyed and irritated by Tyler Perry's presence. Now that we have so many other examples of filmmakers and creators and performers who are able to do all the things that Tyler Perry is not interested in doing (laughter)...
HOWARD: Yeah, yep.
HARRIS: ...And do it to some modicum of success, perhaps not quite on the same level because Tyler Perry has built an empire that is basically unprecedented. Like, he has his entire...
HARRIS: ...Production studio in Atlanta. And I think that that's a really fascinating thing to look at. But what do we think about the crossover we have going on here? We haven't talked about the way this deals with race in a way, too. And this is not the first time that Tyler Perry has dealt with race before. Like, in fact, most...
HARRIS: ...Of his - a lot of his work has dealt with this. But now we have taken basically a parallel sort of figure - at least based on my very limited knowledge of it, like the "Mrs. Brown's Boys" in Ireland, also a man playing a woman in drag.
HARRIS: There's a whole other historical context that's going on here, and I can understand his attempt to, quote-unquote, "build bridges." But I also think, like, what are we getting at here? Is this just more softening and more not really wanting to engage with, like, actual serious - it doesn't even have to be serious. Like, I just think, like, there is a way to do this kind of humor and also be smart about it.
HOWARD: I mean, I kind of want to even ask a deeper or even just a more pointed question. Tyler Perry has been putting on the Madea suit for 20 years - more than 20 years. Brendan O'Carroll has been dressing up as Agnes Brown for more than a decade. But I mean, as Tre'vell said earlier, like, the world is changing, right? Like, Tyler Perry is writing these characters and particularly Madea because he - he's writing what he knows, right? But I wonder if we've moved past the need for the Mrs. Doubtfire approach, you know. Like, I mean, to be sure, I don't think that the punchline is ever, hey, this is funny because this is a character that's actually a man in makeup.
And for me, honestly, both of the actors kind of disappeared into the characters. Like, I didn't see them as men dressed up as ladies. I saw them as the characters. But honestly, I am a cis dude, right? Like, I'm not exactly free of blind spots. So I wonder what you all thought about that kind of cross-dressing from different cultures - let's put them together and see how it works. How did that land for you guys?
ANDERSON: You know.
HOWARD: A loaded you know if I've ever heard one.
ANDERSON: Here's the thing - Tyler Perry, particularly when he plays Madea, is a drag queen, like a bad drag queen, right? Like, it's poorly done. I mean, here's the thing - do I personally feel like we need, you know, any more cis men dressing up as women and calling it art? No. But I also have to recognize that all of those social media influencers who are straight men who put on a wig and act like some banjee or ratchet girl on Instagram are doing the exact same thing - right? - that Tyler Perry is doing, just on a different scale - right? - through a different medium. And so that is something that has been present in our popular culture for some time. The issue I ultimately take with it is the ways that these portrayals end up caricaturizing - right? - Black women ultimately - right? - the way that they end up, in a lot of ways, dehumanizing Black women. All of Tyler Perry's movies, or many of Tyler Perry's movies, have some Black woman who's going through some stuff. She's downtrodden.
ANDERSON: She's looking for a man to come save her, right? All of it is problematic. And yet at the same time, we are in this moment where we're seeing other Black creators do different things, different things that we read as better. And part of me - I hate to say it - is like, you know what? Do what you want to do, Tyler Perry...
ANDERSON: ...Because we have these other options here. And in an ultimate world - right? - in that promised land that we say we're working towards when it comes to representation, it's that every different slice of Black person would be able to see themselves represented on screen. And a lot of people see themselves represented in the foolishness that Tyler Perry puts on screen.
HARRIS: Right. Yeah. Like, at the end of the day, I don't think Tyler Perry should, like, not be able to make whatever he wants to make anymore. I'm fine with that. It's just, OK, what kind of platforms is he being given in these spaces? And I got to say he has done some truly abhorrent - like, everything that he has been, like, writer, producer, director on has a, quote-unquote, "morality story" to it. And I will never forgive him for "Temptation: Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor."
ANDERSON: You wasn't feeling it? You wasn't feeling Brandy and Kim Kardashian?
HARRIS: Oh, man. Or Jurnee Smollett, like...
HARRIS: ...Turning into a, quote-unquote, "hussy" and then getting HIV as punishment at the end of it. Like...
ANDERSON: So bad.
HARRIS: Oh, my goodness. But I do think, you know, the accusations of minstrelsy and those sorts of things, like, I do think that there is some - you can definitely trace those roots. So I'm curious to see where he goes with this, how long he's going to be playing this character, whether or not, at some point, she will eventually disappear, like, if Tyler will ever actually be able to relinquish it. I think that he - it's just become so much a part of his identity at this point.
ANDERSON: Well, it's interesting you say that, though, because - right? - there was a period when Madea was retired or whatever that Tyler Perry, as an individual, was acting in other projects as Tyler Perry.
HOWARD: "Don't Look Up."
HARRIS: "Gone Girl."
HARRIS: "Star Trek." Yeah.
ANDERSON: It's interesting to see him bring Madea back when it seemed as if he was doing these other roles as a means of, like, showing that he could do drama, showing that he could really act and perform. But interestingly enough, he has been able to carve out this lane for himself as a creator in this industry, and it is off of the back of this character Madea. And so I'm not sure that Madea will ever really be able to be retired, right? He's going to always be doing that voice when he does interviews on the late-night shows. I don't think it's ever going away. And part of me feels like it shouldn't go away because of the foundation that it is to his whole empire.
That being said, I do wonder what Madea could be like as a character in narratives that legitimately reflect the current kind of zeitgeist, lived experience that we're having right now. Because everything that he's done thus far with the character, particularly in these last couple years, doesn't feel of the moment...
ANDERSON: ...In the ways that I would like it to. Like, what would it be if he actually got a writers' room together - right? - and built something around Madea, taking in other people's thoughts and feedback - right? - to do something. Because I love this character. I really - I repeat all kinds of Madea-isms in my daily life, OK?
HOWARD: Yeah. Sure. Yeah.
ANDERSON: My friends call me Madea from time to time. I love this character. But, like, where can we take the character over the - what? - now 12 films that this character has been in?
HOWARD: Even though I don't love Tyler's work, generally speaking, one of the things that's interesting is the fact that it is often a mix. There's the drama and the scandal of who's sleeping with who and who's being betrayed by who. And it's always coupled with a moral lesson or sage wisdom, served with a side of jokes that you can see coming from a mile away, in my opinion. But the thing is, like, while that format is kind of grating, kind of annoying, there was a really great point that Madea made about saying I do to more than one person. I have a clip here. I wonder if we can listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PERRY: (As Madea) When y'all get married, make sure y'all saying I do to more than one person. When you marry somebody, 10 years later, that person going to be somebody else. Ten years after that, they're going to be somebody else. People evolve. They change. That's why so many people renew their vows because the person they said I do to at first ain't the same person they with now.
HOWARD: That is a good point. You know?
HOWARD: Like, but you have to sift through a lot of corniness to get to it. And I wonder what you guys think about the nuggets - right? - the nuggets of wisdom that are like that. And I can imagine a poignant moment in a theater when Madea makes that point onstage and the crowd just, like, you know, you get that deep mmm, you know? Like, you can hear them saying that. There is this kind of phenomenon that exists around Madea that while critics pan Tyler Perry movies widely - you look at Rotten Tomatoes, the critic score is low, but the audience score is, like, 60%, 70%, 80%. So, I mean, to some degree, we - of course we have to acknowledge that the people who are not bothered by the writing, they like this stuff. And I wonder, do - the two of you, do you think that there is a real service provided by these films to some audience?
HARRIS: I mean, yes, obviously to a very specific audience.
HARRIS: But again, I think that because we live in a different time now, and there is more space, and it's not just about Tyler Perry anymore, and we don't have - there have been white critics in the past who have compared Black things to Tyler Perry that had nothing to do with Tyler Perry. I think we've finally evolved from that era where people can at least name check Ava DuVernay or...
HARRIS: ...Barry Jenkins.
HOWARD: Or Shonda Rhimes or something...
HARRIS: (Laughter) You know?
HOWARD: ...Anybody else, yeah.
HARRIS: I think it just comes down to I can appreciate - if this is what makes certain people feel happy, good for them. I don't want to yuck anyone's yum. But I also think that we do still need to be critiquing and questioning, OK, what does this serve beyond just his audience at this point? And how is this affecting the rest of the industry? And, you know, Tre'vell, you've mentioned several times he does not work with other writers, generally speaking. Like, he - and he's very proud about that in a way that is cutting a lot of Black people, Black writers out of a writer's room they could be in. And he giveth, and he also taketh away.
HOWARD: That's right. The good Tyler giveth.
ANDERSON: Here's the thing for me. The Tyler Perry, Madea cinematic universe definitely serve - has an audience, and it hyper-serves that audience. And that's great for that audience, sure. But I'm also thinking about the ways in which the types of narratives that Tyler Perry includes in a lot of his films, they don't challenge his audience by any means, right? They end up being kind of this echo chamber for the thoughts and the feelings and the beliefs that they already have for this, you know, Bible, Christian-adjacent morality type of thing that is often offered in these films, you know? But I think that thing was more effective in the plays than it is in the films.
And maybe that goes back to the audience point that you mentioned earlier, J.C. But ultimately, it's just one of those things where I think about if my grandmother was still with us, she would be watching, you know, any Tyler Perry movie that came out. But I'm also thinking about the ways that, like, that would have made it more difficult for me as a Black, queer, nonbinary trans person to engage in conversations with her about the validity of my humanity...
ANDERSON: ...Because for a decade plus, you've seen Tyler Perry and Madea make all these jokes about gay people...
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.
ANDERSON: ...Right? While it does serve an audience, I don't know if it's taking that audience or pushing that audience in the direction that I need that audience to go in as a means of like, you know, affirming and supporting my humanity.
ANDERSON: But again, Tyler Perry's not interested, I would hate to say, in Tre'vell Anderson's humanity...
ANDERSON: ...Right? He's interested in a different slice of humanity, which is, you know, valid in its own self.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, and I think that comes back to your point, Tre'vell, about just, like, what does Madea look like going forward? And that's about having the Madea character and the Joe character being challenged in any way on screen, like, in a real way. And that doesn't happen. And it doesn't look like it's going to happen any time soon because again, this - people are loving it.
HOWARD: Really quickly - I just wanted to because I feel like I've ragged on it - on the film a lot, and I just want to say that there were some things that I liked about it, including - was during the credits, there was this parody of Beyonce's "Homecoming." This is Madea's homecoming. There was a parody of Beyonce's "Homecoming" performance from Coachella.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MADEA HOMECOMING")
PERRY: (As Madea, singing) I've been drinking. I've been drinking. I get filthy when that liquor get into me. I've been thinking. I've been thinking. Cannot keep my fingers off it, baby. I want you, now, now.
HARRIS: Some Netflix synergy going on there, yes.
HOWARD: Exactly. You know, Madea was - like, it was Madea as Beyonce. And honestly, it was one of my favorite parts of the entire thing, which I don't want to - my favorite part of this movie was when the credits rolled. Like, that's not the - that's not what I'm trying to give off.
HOWARD: But, like, this parody, it was honestly - it was just pitch perfect for me. I will tell you - I would have watched a whole movie of Madea as Beyonce. Like, I really enjoyed that bit.
ANDERSON: I agree. I completely agree. That was amazing to see. And it also reminds me of something that Tyler Perry as Madea has done over the years, which is these movie posters or TV show posters in which they take the character of Madea and put it in "Black Swan" or "Bridgerton" or whatever. Love seeing that type of interplay. I find that very, like, imaginative, ingenious and...
HOWARD: So fresh.
ANDERSON: I just wish a little bit of that imagination was, you know, in the script of "Madea Homecoming" as well.
HOWARD: (Laughter) That's right, yes. In the movie - like, could you...
HOWARD: ...Put it in the movie, please?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HARRIS: Well, we want to know what you think about "A Madea Homecoming." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you both for being here. I'm so glad we had this conversation and that we had a wide range of reactions.
ANDERSON: Thanks for having us.
HOWARD: Thank you. God bless you.
HARRIS: God bless you. And we will see you all tomorrow when we'll be talking about the new film "The Batman."
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