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.


  1. I must say that I'm divided concerning Tyler Perry. I like that he's balling in Hollywood. I dont like his character Madea and have no interest in any other movie he does. Thanks, Jenise, for your review. Based on what you're describing, I dont see any forward movement in the depictions of black relationships in this movie either. We already have all the negative,
    difficult stuff--I would love to see a TRUE black love story! Where the man is not emasculated, and the woman is not a greedy emasculator! Even if she does make more money! How about a couple who have learned how to survive and put all the money in one pot--without the woman thinking she's better because she makes more or the man thinking he's worse because he makes less, or better yet, the man makes more and brings it home to his woman and they mutually respect each other and take care of business together! Im sure THAT happens too! It happens in my house! Oh how I long for the days of The Cosby Show! End of rant.

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