Warning: if you want to watch the movies unaware, there are spoilers interspersed
For those unfamiliar, Madea is an amalgamation by Tyler Perry of the many older black women with which he grew up. He makes it clear many times in interviews that Madea is not *a* person but an archetype. In the plays/movies, Madea dispenses advice on child-rearing, often consisting of "whoopins'" and tough love, as well as sage advice to adult children and even older relatives about life as she sees it. Madea's appeal as far as I can tell is in the vaudevillian extremity of her reactions, sometimes done in the movies purely to break the incredible tension. But under Madea's comedy, Tyler Perry addresses some vicious and disturbing subjects: child rape, incest, death, drug addiction, prostitution, drug dealing and spousal abuse, just to name a few. These are handled with absolute frankness, without hesitation or the camera panning from scenes that *will* disturb you. When one of Madea's nieces is being abused by her fiance, the camera never leaves her as she is hit, threatened and tortured. This often earns these movies minimally PG-13 ratings, and in at least two cases, an R rating. So if you are of a gentle sensibility and cannot handle these disturbing issues, Tyler Perry movies might be too intense for you.
But with these terrible issues, these movies have the spiritual aspects. Let me be honest: my girlfriend is a Christian and she felt it necessary to "warn" me about it, but I trust her and I watched the movies without concern. Yes, the "thank you, Jesus" got tiresome, do not misunderstand. But these are "real" people and the message Perry seeks to dispense is about the value of faith. Now, we can argue about whether faith is as necessary, either to Madea herself or to the others in the stories, to redeem them of their problems. In what I see as perhaps the most redeeming thing about these movies, even as Madea is talking in "praise Jesus" messages, she is dispensing "pull yourself up by the bootstrap" messages. When her above-mentioned niece is given advice by Madea, it is not "pray about it," but rather very earthy advice about dealing with an abusive spouse. My 12 year old daughter loves the scene because it reflects a realty that she understands. When her sister learned of her abuse, her exact words were, "Oh hell no! Madea!" After telling Madea of the abuse in vague terms and asking what to do, Madea says, "Before or after his funeral?" and then offers some very (pardon my expression) BLACK WOMAN ADVICE. As I tell my children, I grew up around women like Madea, women who would no sooner let a man hit them then they would feed their children poison. So, again, regardless of the "praise Jesus" tones, Madea is very sagacious and earthy.
Under the religious tones are other messages, ones that an atheist can agree are important. Some of them are:
- Family should be central
- What happened in the past cannot be changed, deal with it and move forward
- Forgiving someone takes away their power to control your life
- You are only as strong as you tell yourself you are
- There are times when even the strongest needs a friend
- Don't let hatred consume you
Now allow me to address what I am certain are going to be objections to Madea/Tyler Perry.
1. Madea engages in corporal punishment. An important thing to know is that this issue is addressed head-on in "Madea's Big Happy Family" and in actuality, the very religious family member comes out on the losing side of this. She believed prayer would remedy her children and their failings, not believing in the Madea brand of tough love. It is Madea's aggressive and not-unwarranted use of force that corrects a VERY foul-mouthed child who had been raised by "negotiating" and "reasoning" parents. It is Madea's unfiltered truth-telling that makes the adult children snap out of their hatred of their dying mother and of each other. I am sure there are people who will criticize the movies and my endorsement of them. I am not unaware of how "incorrect" these movies are to people who *know* that all children will respond to rational discourse. So be it. It does not, regardless, take away from the message that parents must PARENT their children. Madea delivers lines of advice to parents in the movie which amount to, "you are their parents, not their friends or equals."
2. The apparent lack of real justice in these movies leaves me wishing for better resolution. Madea's niece's abusive fiance gets personal comeuppance but these is no mention of legal consequences, and the underlying reason why he felt he could do these things (her mother had been raiding her trust fund with the fiance's help) are never really addressed. Worse, the rapes of two different children in two movies, while occurring before the action of the films, seem to have gone unpunished. Incest and rape are, to me, worse than many of the other themes in these films and yet are the ones that seem to go escape consequence beyond the victims themselves. This is a legitimate issue to me and I will not defend it except to say that we should look at the world in which these stories take place and realize that reality DOES often show us people escape real justice for their crimes. So maybe, this should anger the audience enough to start demanding justice for these victims.
3. Stereotypes of black people do not elevate the community. I am almost loathe to say this but these stereotypes exist because they reflect the reality Perry seeks to illuminate. If you have a problem with portraying drug dealers/addicts, prostitutes, abusive partners, teen pregnancy or a myriad of other societal ills, then look out of your window and see what is real. I do not live in the black community so I cannot say Perry's reality reflects authentically, but I will accept that he does and therefore he knows from whence he speaks.
What do I want you, the reader, to take away from this? I want my atheist friends to not shy away from these movies. Even if you disagree with aspects, even if you HATE some of the messages, I think it is important to reflect on how other's view the world and social ills, as well as the solutions they offer. To my Christian/religious friends, I would like for you to consider Madea's actions as opposed to her words. She may "praise Jesus" but she never relies on him to solve her problems or those in her family. She takes the bull by the horns, or by the balls in a few cases, and she says what has to be said, does what has to be done and, when the dust settles, a family is better than it was before and maybe we the audience have been elevated in our awareness of our responsibilities to each other. No need for a higher power....because we are our own higher power; we have the power to fix many of the things wrong in our own lives and those of our neighbors.