Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself
Directed by Tyler Perry
Runtime: 120 min.
AS A SCREENING of Tyler Perry’s previous opus, Madea Goes to Jail, came to its treacly end, a stout, middle-aged black woman said to her cohorts, “Huh? Is that all!” It’s gotten to the point that even Tyler Perry’s core audience has become more demanding.The slovenliness of Meet the Browns, Madea Goes to Jail and the tortuous if dramatic plotting of Why Did I Get Married?, Daddy’s Little Girls and The Family That Preys doesn’t pass muster among moviegoers with (undervalued) sophistication about the pop culture they enjoy.
Perry’s built an empire on folklore, but he doesn’t monopolize it. David E. Talbert’s First Sunday dealt persuasively with the legacy of the community church more convincingly than Perry’s satire, as did Bishop T.D. Jakes’ Not Easily Broken. And Benny Boom’s Next Day Air is still the most sophisticated American morality play so far this movie year. To keep empire building, Perry needs to step up his game. And his new film—the almost-musical I Can Do Bad All By Myself ain’t quite there.
The problem is Perry’s own game plan. Perry knows that he’ll probably never win over those whites who may have voted for Obama but still lack empathy for what typically amuses people of African- American experience.Yet, Perry’s bigscreen transition, after succeeding in chitlin’ circuit traveling stage shows and DVD transcriptions, has seemed—even to his most dedicated fans—suspiciously cautious, or “calibrated” (to use an Obama term). Perry the cineaste calibrates by an old Southern truism: Don’t Scare The White Folks.
Fact is, even the most effectively emotive Perry films have been as carefully contrived as the stage shows—but to avoid offending the sensibilities of unsympathetic critics and skeptical ticket buyers. He does this by being almost self-punishingly unmusical. The success— the true art—of Perry’s stage and DVD productions came from indulgent stretches of glorious gospel explosions and heart-wrenching, operatic recitative. As powerful as it is raw—yet as splendidly nuanced and trained as it is beautiful— the singing in Tyler Perry shows transcends their meager vaudeville origins. Yet, somehow, his movies seem ashamed of this power—as if it’s too much to expect white folks to take, and black people will understand.
But it’s less understandable as Perry’s empire grows and his films become more damned loquacious—and routine. Sports aren’t a crossover specialty Perry can exploit (like Ron Shelton); he knows the power of song. Or, in his own way, he at least knows how the caged bird sings. This may explain I Can Do Bad’s heroine April (Taraji P. Henson) being a nightclub singer, and why Perry surrounds her with Gladys Knight and Mary J. Blige—two unimpeachable greats. Still, it’s a familiar love-and-struggle plot, tediously complicated and yet with no real aesthetic climax. Perry denies himself and his audience the release they seek. That’s something you could never say about even the shoddiest blaxploitation movie. Artists from Curtis Mayfield to Willie Hutch, James Brown to Marvin Gaye made sure the music delivered—even when it delivered against a screenplay’s odious message, as in the classic case of Superfly.
Perry’s sensitivity to feminine angst is limited by this self-imposed quarantine. Henson, who first won attention as the shy babymama-with-a-voice in Hustle and Flow, is an effective actress, but she cannot wail like Perry’s stage dynamos Cheryl Pepsii Riley,Tamela J. Mann, D‘Atra Hiks. Imagine a gospel genre that muzzled Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, et al.? Without music and singing Tyler Perry is not the challenge to Fellini, Bergman, Minnelli, Sirk, Spielberg or cinema convention that he imagines. Big-name stars aren’t enough. He needs help from the Amen chorus. Or else his new film’s folksy title will be all too true.