Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Domestic Violence and Black Uplift Don't Mix: Expecting More From Tyler Perry

by Jenise Hudson

“I don’t believe in hitting women, but I’ll shake a bitch!”

--Chris Rock

The sequel to Tyler Perry’s official marriage film, WHY DID I GET MARRIED TOO is set to hit theatres nationwide next month. I can’t wait. I’d like to claim a politically correct reason for my choice to patronize the film, such as wanting to support black actors, producers and writers, bu

t that is only part of my motive. For me, there is something about Tyler Perry’s films – perhaps it is a familiarity I feel with the earlier characters, or maybe it is the music – which I enjoy. I have not failed to see one of his movies at the movies.

Nevertheless, even as I admit that I will be getting my tickets early, it doesn’t mitigate the concerns I have about going into another Perry relationship film. The last three years of the director/producer’s works have repeatedly showcased negative images of black career women with little reprieve. For starters, there is Angela (played by Tasha Smith) from the first WHY DID I GET MARRIED (2007), the hairstylist that can’t seem to find the balance between running her salon and emasculating her employee-husband; then there is her girlfriend Diane (played by Sharon Leal), the workaholic whose career takes precedence over her roles as a wife and mother.

And who can forget Andrea (played by Sanaa Lathan), the most vilified wife in this suite of Perry’s cutthroat career women; Andrea is the corporate finance executive from Perry’s 2008 film, THE FAMILY THAT PREYS, whose greed and lust lead her to an extramarital affair that ultimately ends her marriage and her c

All of the images are problematic for the common suggestion that career mindedness and marriage can hardly be managed or mutually enjoyed by women without eclipsing their male partners, yet never have I struggled so much to understand the rationale behind what I see as a scene of violent spousal reprisal for this drive as I did watching the moment in FAMILY when Chris (played by Rockmond Dunbar) backhands his wife across the counter of her mother’s diner.

Viewers must all remember where they were when they first witnessed the “smack scene” between Chris and Andrea; it is that notorious. For me, it was a Friday afternoon and I was jumpstarting my weekend with a matinee.

I had purchased a ticket, walked into the sparsely populated theater and sat on the row in front of four black women ranging in ages from mid thirties to late fifties that were also spending their afternoon as I was. My first realization as the opening scenes began to unfold was that I should never come to another Tyler Perry movie by myself.

I remember thinking, half the fun of these movies is the audience’s reaction! In the absence of such crowd participation, I found myself drifting in and out of interest with the movie, unconvinced by the botched Thelma and Louise-style plot that was taking place between Alice’s (played by Alfre Woodard) and Charlotte’s (played by Kathy Bates) characters and even more disillusioned with Chris’s profound naiveté despite all the red-flag signals that Andrea was cheating on him.

I found myself critical at moments where generally the crowd response would have led me to laugh in unison. I was in such a state of mind that when the climactic “smack scene” happened. One minute, I watched as Andrea angrily revealed to her husband that the source of the $286,000 he had taken from her private bank account was her boss, William Cartwright, with whom she had been having a long-term affair. The next minute I watched as Chris faked a turn away from her, built up some speed for the backhand that came next, and collided with her face with such force that Andrea was propelled across the serving counter onto the floor on the other side.

Up to that point, it had seemed that the theatre was silent; if the women behind me commented before then, I don’t remember what they said. But I will never forget how they hooped and hollered over that scene of violence. They cheered, cheered for the attack. “Yes! That’s right! That’s what she gets. He should have yanked her ass before that!” I surreptitiously attempted to peer through the space between my seat and the next so I could get a look at this group of ladies. It was disturbing to see how easily they could be corralled – or corralled themselves – into rooting for Andrea’s disposability.

I watched as Andrea lost not only her husband but her lover, car and job, and ultimately was forced to depend on the charity of her ex-husband. One scene in the denouement has Chris stopping by Andrea’s gloomy motel or apartment to drop her a few bills before charitably kissing the forehead of the child he has learned is not his own and leaving to his now-thriving construction business.

Troubled, I left the theater turning over in my mind why the film had to end that way. The scene seemed to me not to fit, neither in terms of the act itself nor in terms of the degree to which it was performed. I couldn’t figure it out. Why have Chris slap Andrea? Why choreograph the slap so forcefully? What was the point? Certainly there is no denying that Andrea is unlikeable throughout most of the film. With her Cruella Deville black business suits and severely cut bob, Andrea is every bit of the self-serving, ungrateful brat that her sister, Pam (played by Taraji P. Henson), says she is.

Andrea’s "stankness" is doubtless a trait that many viewers wish they could rid her of at one point or another; and if we tease out the reasoning for the literal smack down she absorbs in the diner scene, we likely will find that the choreographed attack is an attempt on the scriptwriter’s (Perry’s) part to reward us for having tolerated her for so long. Yet even with these explanations, the problem still remains: why have the climax of the film center on Chris, the emasculated blue-collar husband, kicking his corporate wife’s ass moments before he achieves his own professional and personal success? For what reason does his reassertion of masculine power hinge on her come-uppance?

The problem with this type of narrative is a problem that has existed for decades, ever since the early twentieth century when images of the Sapphire suggested that black women were loud-mouthed, emasculators. The post-Civil Rights years have seen the discussion morph from a debate about women as matriarchs in the home to heated arguments on the power-tripping black professional women who, in the words of Lance Sullivan in the film, THE BEST MAN (1999), are like Jordan Armstrong, “one step from being lesbian” by virtue of their professional acumen. Anyone looking for proof of this power dynamics conversation in the film can hear it voiced when Chris complains to his Ben Andrea is freaking out about money. Ben replies, “You know she’s freaking out, she’s making all the money,” to which Chris rebuts, “That’s all about to change.” Like a fable, FAMILY is an instructional manual, guide and warning to black men of what can happen when they let their women run unchecked in the marriage.

At least in previous Perry films when an individual (be it male or female) has been previously abused physically, it is more comparable when [s]he responds in kind. There is no such moment in THE FAMILY THAT PREYS; Andrea never strikes Chris first. If anything she only runs her mouth, and it is that, not her hand, which provokes Chris’s attack. Is the message here that a Sapphire woman’s sharp tongue bruises a man’s pride as severely as a man’s hand (or fist, or foot, etc.) bruises a woman’s body?

The way I see it, the slap that Chris delivers to Andrea is a blow intended to end a conversation about women’s professional success that is taking place on a higher frequency. As vile as Andrea is in the film, her character flaws only ostensibly explain why Chris strikes her. The scene is about power dynamics. It is about Chris regaining his voice and power from a woman who supposedly wields too much of both. Chris does not hit Andrea until he finds out she has been sleeping with Cartwright. That he has been cuckolded is the ultimate insult: his hand is forced. He must react.

But where is Chris’s responsibility in the situation? What about his failure to consistently express in a meaningful way to his wife, without violence, that he will not be disrespected in the marriage? We see in the scene where Andrea first tries to attack him for looking into her private bank account that Chris is capable of stopping her rant. Just as Andrea begins to rain down insults on him for asking about “[her] money,” Chris stops her. “I can be the nicest guy in the world,” he says, “but if you keep pissing me off we’re going to have some problems.” To this assertive response, Andrea’s posture changes. Of course, she proceeds to lie; but for a moment, she retreats in the face of Chris’s resolve.

Why doesn’t Perry run with that? Sure, it could be argued that even by suggesting that there will be “problems” if Andrea doesn’t explain the money, Chris is evoking a violent masculine rhetoric that is not much different than that which he resurrects when he does strike her. However, who is to say that that rhetoric, when unaccompanied by actual violence, isn’t appealing to some women? I agree with Joan Morgan when she says that a new age of feminism calls on us to “fuck with the gray.” That gray area is, in part, a space where we acknowledge that as black women, we dig a certain degree of machismo in our men. Perry acknowledges this dynamic in WHY DID I GET MARRIED when Angela’s husband Marcus (Michael Jai White) tells her to let him handle his child’s mother on his own. Why not do the same thing in FAMILY THAT PREYS, Mr. Perry? It is clear there are moments when Chris could take a more assertive stand with Angela without resorting to violence. But he doesn’t. This time the script does not call for that kind of progressive male approach.

Instead, Chris is paraded across the screen as an exemplar of “good black manhood,” and I have a huge problem with such a characterization of him. To begin, painting Chris as the “good black man” completely obfuscates the fact he steals from his wife’s bank account to the tune of $286,000! Remember, after learning that the loan officer will not grant him the $300,000 he needs to start his construction business, Chris takes the money from Andrea’s separate bank account and sinks it into his business without her knowledge. By doing so, he acts as a thief. Is that how a “good black man” behaves?

Suffice it to say, that if Chris had smacked Andrea with a force that threw her head back during the argument, it would have been bad enough. Had the blow had just knocked her to her knees, it would have been bad enough. But the scene doesn’t stop there. Why is it necessary for Chris to lay Andrea out so violently that she flies across a table?

Shuttling that retributive act of violence onto Chris’s shoulders as a cover up for its more broad reverberations punishes Andrea in a way that should be disconcerting for women and men alike. To buy into the pretense that Chris is unable to discover a more progressive way of managing his marriage is to open the door to his outburst without holding him accountable. Meanwhile, Andrea is left in the way of a nineteenth century sentimental novel protagonist to languish because she has lost the favor of any man that might rescue her. The ending is as questionable as the climax. According to the film, Andrea is a top graduate from her Master’s program. How is it that with her credentials she is unable to land on her feet? Is that really justice, or is the retribution being laid on a bit thick? Who knows. What I can say for sure is that we all should keep our critical eyes peeled as we gear up for WHY DID I GET MARRIED TOO in a few weeks.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

"You Your Best Thing": The Other Side to the Black Abortion Debate

"You Your Best Thing," Paul D relays to a grief stricken and traumatized Sethe at the end of Toni Morrison's most touted novel Beloved. The physical embodiment of black women's self-sacrifice( she kills her daughter to protect her from experiencing slavery), Sethe responds incredulously--"Me?Me?"--as if the very idea that she held value beyond her role as a caregiver and nurturer for someone else was beyond comprehension. The fact that Morrison puts these powerful words in Paul D's mouth is certainly no coincidence.

Indeed, Morrison has written extensively about her self-consciously political narrative choices and authored a landmark study in Playing in the Dark that explores crisis of white identity as rendered through the creative, racialized imagination of white American novelists from Herman Melville to Ernest Hemingway. It matters that Paul D speaks these encouraging words to Sethe, not only because she loves and respects him, but because they share a history of unspeakable strife.

Raped by white men himself--a reality that he never utters aloud or fully comes to terms with emotionally--Paul D initially runs away from Sethe after learning of her infanticide because her bloody revolt and intense mother love hit too close to home. Unable to see his way clear of his own hidden demons and hold fully accountable the monsters that molested them both, Paul D casts Sethe as primitive and animalistic and heads for the exits. When Paul D circles back, he engages Sethe from the point of deep empathy, recognizing that the true culprit was pathological white supremacy and those who policed it; that her reaction of infanticide reflected the no-way-out calculus of black slave motherhood.

I raise this intense and poignant climatic moment in Morrison's Beloved, to introduce a rather glaring oversight in the current debate about black women and abortion that has erupted as a result of the recent antiabortion billboards that were erected in Atlanta. The billboard (pictured above)--which features a visibly distressed black baby and reads "Black children are an endangered species"--is designed for maximum cultural shock value.

Wanting to sound the alarm about an exploding abortion rate among black women in Georgia, the primary sponsor of the billboards--Georgia Right to Life--hired a black consultant in Catherine Davis who masterminded an effective political antiabortion campaign, framing the rise in abortion rates among black women as a white supremacist racial conspiracy. What makes Davis's conspiracy so dangerous and effective is that it is premised in part on the truth. That is to say, that the idea of exterminating and/or ridding the country of blacks goes back a ways historically.

Many whites--including one Thomas Jefferson--feared that if slaves were emancipated they would retaliate in violence, seeking payback for the harm done them under bondage (peep Notes On Virginia to get the R-rated version). Indeed, good ole' Abe Lincoln seriously contemplated a plan to have blacks shipped back to Africa to keep the Republic intact.

And, there were certainly white eugenics movements afoot in the early part of the twentieth century and several states, including North Carolina, during the first decades of the twentieth century were notorious for sterilizing black women without consent when they arrived at hospitals to give. Suffice it to say then that there was more than enough historical ammunition on Davis's side to undergird her conspiracy thesis.

What most disturbs me about Davis's political propaganda is that it covers over rather than illuminates the harsh socioeconomic realities of black women and motherhood in the U.S. As Morrison makes clear in her novel, black motherhood was thrown radically into crisis because of slavery. Laws were put in place so that enslaved black women's children--regardless of their paternal line--followed the social condition of the mother.

What this meant in plain speak is that white men could rape and impregnate their slaves without worrying about having to contend with legal claims of free status from their bastard offspring. To give birth then for enslaved black women was to incarcerate your children into bondage. Adding to this breeder status, was the always present reality that one's children would be sold away. There was thus an inherent danger attached to even loving one's child. Morrison's narrative captures this sentiment best when she explains that the coping mechanism of the enslaved was to "love small." Fast forward to the twenty first century and its clear that the vestiges of this thinking are still with us.

Though the term "welfare queen"--popularized by none other than Ronald Reagan during his 1976 presidential campaign--has fallen out of fashion, the image of the parasitical, baby-churning, unwed black mother is alive and well. Peep the recent events at University of California San Diego if you want proof. To bring the matter closer to home, I distinctly remember the cautious response that my then wife received when she disclosed to her family that she was pregnant with our first child.

Though we had been married for over 5 years, were economically stable, and both well-educated, her family--upon hearing the news--remarked almost to a person, "This is good news, right?" So accustomed had they become to seeing pregnancy as a death sentence for the women in their family that they were genuinely at a loss of how to respond when the pregnancy was planned and welcomed.

And here's another rub, a goodly number of the black women that opt for abortions have been sexually assaulted. The Oscar-winning movie "Precious" set many a black heads spinning because of its raw and unflinching portrayal of incest and black poverty (what will white folks think of us now), but it also ignited a desperately needed conversation about taboo subjects of intraracial sexual abuse and violence.

The toxic brew of racism, institutionalized poverty, and (culturally sanctioned) sexism, can much better explain the high and rising number of abortions by black women than lax racial consciousness. So, if there is indeed a racial conspiracy lurking out there threatening the black empowerment, we'd better start looking a lot closer to home.