In my other life I write movie reviews, and I’m sure it isn’t surprising to you that good writing in films is just as important as it is in literature. At times there is a hairline difference between a good film and a bad one. Then I had the misfortune of reviewing Madea’s Witness Protection, and realized that sometimes the distance between good and bad film making can be an abyss.
This is the first, and God willing the last Madea movie I will ever have to sit through. One of the biggest complaints lodged against Tyler Perry is that he perpetuates negative racial stereotypes. There is a lot to criticize Perry on, but the use of racial stereotypes is the least of his problems. Madea’s Witness Protection is a thoroughly unfunny film, full of poorly written characters, and a script that would be far better suited for a seventies urban sitcom than a major motion picture.
Okay, let’s take a deep breath, I understand that those words may sound harsh, but for those of us who use words for a living, and love it when they are streamed together to make wonderful stories, it can be an offense to the senses when a film appears as if the words were an afterthought.
The premise for Madea’s Witness Protection is this: George Needleman is CFO of a charitable organization under investigation by the FBI. Unbeknownst to Needleman, the organization is a Ponzi scheme that is laundering money for the mob. In order to get protection from the Feds and keep his family safe, George agrees to testify in court. But the safe houses have been infiltrated by the mob, so Federal Prosecutor Brian Simmons, thinks the home of his aunt Madea (played by the very male writer/actor Tyler Perry), is the perfect place for the family to hide out until George can go to trial; because of course they’d be safer with the sassy old black woman Madea, than they would be with the Feds. I am not making this up, this is the actual plot.
I’m not so thin skinned that I can’t enjoy a film where there are characters that represent cultural stereotypes. If done right, these kinds of things can be funny, but good writing is essential in making it work. Madea’s Witness Protection is such an unbelievably bad film that the stereotypes come off as crude and thoughtless. Perry is listed as the sole writer on the film, and maybe that’s where the biggest problem lies. He might need a co-writer who can rein him in, advise him that a nearly two hour film full of one liners with a story created around it, might not be a wise move. The Madea character isn’t very likeable and she reads her lines as if every one of them is a punch line, and she’s waiting for the rim shot. It would make no difference if she were on screen by herself or with another actor, because Madea doesn’t have conversations with the people, she talks at them –and loudly. Every word uttered is meant to illicit a laugh, every joke is more embarrassing than the last.
One of the most irritating aspects about Madea (And it was hard to come up with just one), is the way she greets people with the infamous “Heller” instead of hello. You see, Madea is southern, and in Perry’s world, all old Black southern women say hello this way. It’s meant to be a cute quirk of the character, but it feels forced -just like everything else in this film. Each time Madea utters that expression, I think of the Urkel catch phrase that was so big in the 90s, “Did I do that?” It’s about as dumb and just as tiresome.
Madea’s Witness Protection seems to be an example of writers taking the easy way out by using cheap jokes to make up for the lack of a story. I am mystified at the success of these movies, but their popularity could be due to the fact that Perry is one of a small number of successful black filmmakers. He has tapped into a market starving for entertainment they feel represents the lives and communities of Black Americans. So maybe even a story about an unfunny, and obnoxious black woman who loud talks her way through life, is better than nothing —I guess.
For me, I don’t care what color you are, a powerful story will resonate with audiences regardless of their race. The goal should be to tell a good story —that’s all. Sure, there is a subjective nature to judging any art form, but if we’re making movies for specific groups instead of just for people who love watching movies, maybe what we end up with are films like Madea’s Witness Protection.
~Welcome to a monthly look at the art of creative writing from all kinds of mediums: Books, music, movies, television, and anything else I can think of. If you have any ideas please feel free to offer them in the comments below. I hope you find it helpful as well as entertaining ~AN