From all appearances, Charles and Helen McCarter (Steve Harris and Kimberly Elise) lead a charmed life. Married almost 18 years, they live in a palatial mansion in an upscale part of Atlanta, where Charles is a successful attorney. But appearances don't tell the whole story. Less than a day after he publicly thanks Helen for her support in his career, Charles comes home and coldly informs Helen that their marriage "has run its course." Having packed her boxes in advance, he moves his mistress into the house and kicks Helen out, leaving her to figure out how to rebuild her life and deal with a load of emotional baggage bigger than the U-Haul holding her stuff. When Charles is shot and paralyzed by a disgruntled client, Helen has to choose between returning home to care for him and taking her revenge.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman is an adaptation of playwright Tyler Perry's widely successful stage play of the same name. Perry also appears in the movie, playing three characters: Brian, Helen's cousin and attorney; Madea, a much-beloved grandmother-type who appears in many of his works; and Joe, Madea's lecherous brother. Although some critics have derisively labeled his work "chitlin' circuit" theater, Perry counters that his plays bridge the gap between traditional theater and less-respected forms. But whether or not his plays enjoy critical acclaim, they've clearly enjoyed popular success. (Charles and Helen's movie home is actually the mansion of the once-homeless Perry.)
The major storyline focuses on Helen's struggle to put her life back together over the next few months, aided by her mother, Myrtle (Cicely Tyson), Brian, Madea and love interest Orlando (Shemar Moore), who happened to be driving the U-Haul Charles hired to take Helen away. The story traces this recovery arc through a series of Helen's diary entries.
A secondary storyline concerns Brian and wife Debrah (powerfully depicted by Tamara Taylor). Because of her drug addiction, Debrah has left Brian and her two children to live on the streets. Brian must decide whether or not to give her yet another chance to rejoin the family—and must grapple with his fears for their daughter Tiffany, whose personality is similar to her mother's.
The themes that emerge immediately are obvious: how to deal with relational pain and betrayal, and how wounded people can heal in a healthy emotional space somewhere between pained acceptance and soul-destroying rage before eventually learning to trust again.
For Helen, that means slowly (well, not that slowly—but more about that later) opening her heart to Orlando, who tells her he believes in fairy tales and promises to "love you past your pain." More than once, soap-opera star Moore's delivery of such lines resulted in a mixture of "awwws," groans and belly laughs from audiences at two different screenings. "That's so beautiful," one deep-voiced audience member giggled in a teary stage whisper.
That's not the only place in which the dialogue is less than believable. Still, that's because many of the things that take place in the movie require the reader to suspend disbelief. For example, within a period of weeks, Orlando goes from referring derisively to Helen as "just another bitter black woman" to telling her he likes her hair, to taking her on an accidental first date in which (despite her thinly veiled classism and open suspicion) he looks longingly at her, dances with her and starts the fairy tale talk. Somehow he goes from being an insensitive name-caller to a pop psychologist/suitor spouting lines about getting tough but not hard—just in time for the singer at the jazz club to sing a song dedicated to new couples.
Kimberly Elise brings A-game acting to this B-movie. Her most amazing performance comes when Helen returns to her home to care for the now-paralyzed Charles, only to find that his physical vulnerability—and the fact that he's already been abandoned by his mistress—have not softened his heart or his tongue. She snaps and becomes his caretaker/tormentor, alternating calculated iciness and a mocking warmth with bone-chilling effectiveness. Audiences sympathized with her, clapping as the abused becomes the abuser.
Most characters don't get the chance to develop that much. For example, though Steve Harris plays a successful attorney as he did in the TV show The Practice, McCarter doesn't have the complexity of The Practice's Eugene Young. He's just the arrogant no-good husband we're supposed to hate, and he makes it easy. There's no hint about his motivation for treating his wife so badly for so long. As Helen mistreats him, he sits silently, occasionally crying comically. But he's paralyzed, not mute, and he hasn't held his tongue before. Why now? Tyson's Myrtle is an archetypal religious older woman, who, upon hearing about her daughter's situation, spouts a few platitudes about having "the strength God gave us women to survive" and "asking the Savior to help you," one day at a time (just before a chorus of "Yield Not to Temptation" is cued). None of these people are poor actors, but they are severely limited by the material. Characters frequently transform by way of sudden epiphany.
Thank goodness for Perry's Madea, who provides a sense of warm, sharp humor. Madea (whose name comes from the common merging of the words "My Dear" in reference to one's grandmother) stars in most of Perry's plays. The compassionate, cigarette-smoking, church-eschewing Madea calls things as she sees them and keeps the peace by brandishing an ever-ready pistol she packs in her worn black purse ("Peace be still? I got a piece of steel"). Perry plays her with warmth, affection and a lot of padding. When Madea learns about her granddaughter's situation, she heads to the McCarter home and leads Helen in a cathartic, hilariously destructive rampage, tearing up the mistresses' clothes, waving her gun at Charles and dividing their possessions—with a chainsaw.
Many viewers will be uncomfortable with Helen's romantic involvement with Orlando before her divorce is finalized, and although the voiceover diary entry makes it clear that they are not having sex, she sleeps at his apartment, which some will find inappropriate. There's some shaky theology that goes unexplored: for example, when Brian tells Helen that it's not good "to hold on to the things God is trying to tear apart" or when Myrtle reminds Helen that "God is a jealous God" after she confides that Charles was her whole life. Whether they mean what's implied (that maybe God destroyed the McCarter marriage, perhaps because Charles was Helen's "everything") isn't explored. It's careless at best, dangerous at worst.
A little strange, too, is the retention of the play's original title for a broader audience. The play occasionally frames the McCarters' troubles as problems between a black woman and a black man. This doesn't really make much sense, because the story isn't an in-depth discussion of the implications being African-American might have for one's romantic relationships. After all, Helen isn't mad because she's black; she's angry because, well, her husband just threw her out of their house. Charles isn't a bad black man; he's a bad person.
Several elements of the play (for example, the voiceover diary entries and the schmaltzy music used to transition from scene to scene) don't always translate well to the big screen, but the story's end is both predictable and surprising, combining a series of very sweet, truly moving moments with a climactic, tear-inducing end and a little twist. It's a satisfying end, but it takes a lot of work—and a lot of suspended disbelief—to get there.Discussion starters
- When a person is wounded by a divorce or the breakup of a dating relationship, how long should they wait before starting a new romantic relationship? How much of a role should a new relationship play in healing past wounds?
- When she learns that Helen signed a prenuptial agreement giving Charles a financial advantage in the case of divorce, Madea tells Helen that women like her are "too busy out shopping when you should be looking at the [house] deed." What is the appropriate balance of trust and preventive self-protection in a Christian marriage?
- The paralysis Charles suffers after being shot by a dissatisfied client makes him physically vulnerable to Helen's revenge. What do you think about the way she treats him? What are God-honoring ways to respond to the bitterness that often follows a deep betrayal?
- When Brian sees that his daughter, Tiffany, has a personality similar to that of his wife Debrah, he's afraid Tiffany will become a drug addict, the way Debrah did. Do you believe that members of the same family are vulnerable to the same addictions, struggles or sins? Why or why not?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film includes casual swearing and some crude sexual humor, including Joe's leering, less-than-subtle come-ons and reading of a porn magazine behind his newspaper. Violence includes scenes of Charles literally throwing Helen out of their house and her very physical revenge on him, exacerbated by the fact that he is paralyzed and thus defenseless. The story centers around emotionally violent themes of deep and sudden betrayal, which makes it inappropriate for young viewers. There are scenes which include unmarried couples sleeping together, though no sex is shown. There's a brief reference to stereotypes of Asians, and in one scene drug use is portrayed in a humorous light.
Photos © Copyright Lions Gate Filmscompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 03/03/05
Actress Kimberley Elise impressed critics last year with a riveting performance in the film Woman, Thou Art Loosed. She played a woman suffering from a lifetime of abuse by unfaithful and dangerous men, a woman who eventually turned to violence to settle the score.
In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the big screen adaptation of Tyler Perry's popular stage play, Elise again plays a woman rightfully angry at a man's unfaithfulness. Elise plays Helen, the wife of an unfaithful husband. Her mother, Myrtle (Cicely Tyson), her cousin Brian (Tyler Perry himself, in one of three roles), and a potential beau named Orlando (Shemar Moore) all support her while she chronicles her pain and her struggle in diary entries.
LaTonya Taylor (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "The themes that emerge … are obvious: how to deal with relational pain and betrayal, and how wounded people can heal in a healthy emotional space somewhere between pained acceptance and soul-destroying rage before eventually learning to trust again."
Taylor praises Kimberley Elise who "brings A-game acting to this B-movie." But she criticizes poor character development, implausible dialogue, and a few other aspects of the film. She concludes, "The story's end is both predictable and surprising, combining a series of very sweet, truly moving moments with a climactic, tear-inducing end and a little twist. It's a satisfying end, but it takes a lot of work—and a lot of suspended disbelief—to get there."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the film "mixes emotional drama with dollops of dark-edged comedy, resulting in a moving—if at times melodramatic—and fitfully humorous affirmation of faith, family and forgiveness, the tone of which alternates between raucously zany and spiritually soaring. Given Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce, some viewers may object to the film's resolution. Still, with its rousing gospel score, it is hard to find fault with the movie's overall celebration of faith as a source of strength in times of personal pain."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) agrees that the movie is "an uneven mix of drama and comedy, romance and revenge. Though the audience I saw it with clearly resonated with the theme of man's inhumanity to women, the characters are so one-dimensionally extreme that the story is almost pure melodrama." Lyon concludes by saying that the film fails "to offer a solid, biblical message" and settles for an underwhelming and too-familiar lie."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) sums it up: "Folks who decide to see Diary of a Mad Black Woman will be getting many films for the price of one. It's a weepy melodrama … a raucous urban … [and] a Christian-oriented morality tale about love and forgiveness. The problem is that those elements don't blend together particularly well, resulting in often jarring shifts in tone and mood."
Only a few mainstream critics think all of this melodrama is a good thing.from Film Forum, 03/10/05
Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say, "The film's weaving together of faith and life is refreshing. Without being preachy, and with a bawdy humor that balances the seriousness of the topics and religious messages, Perry presents a moral tale. The story is elevated not only by enjoyable gospel music but also by a proclamation of the power of God to heal us from addictions, abusive behaviors, angry revenge and powerlessness. This is a message that can deliver us all from being mad at life."
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