Its the Gospel Half-Truth

It'sofficial:theChitlinCircuit,thatmodern road show of gospel plays made by black people for black people, has gone mainstream. Writer/producer Tyler Perry's DiaryofaMadBlackWomanopens in movie theaters Friday, though it remains to be seen whether the niche audience that supports the live shows will also support a multiplex version and whether that audience will broaden.

Not that that matters very much to the filmmakers: this is a movie so squarely aimed at the Christian converted, so obvious in its black family-values propaganda, its creators may not care a whit about what secular audiences—or a secularist critic—might think.

Broad as the side of a barn, Diarytells the story of Stepford-wife Helen (The ManchurianCandidate'sKimberly Elise), who's married to a successful and obscenely wealthy lawyer, Charles (Steve Harris). They live uneventfully together in a marbled mansion the size of the Louvre until, on their 18th wedding anniversary, Charles abruptly announces he's done with the marriage. After introducing his stricken wife to his light-skinned vixen of a mistress, he pushes Helen out of his life and, literally, out of the house. Left with little more than the clothes on her back, Helen becomes a pilgrim in search of all those meaningful things she thought she'd had all along but didn't—self-esteem, family, faith, the love of a good, God-fearing man who can truly see her for herself. You know, the things money can't buy. Along the way, she re-discovers her roots in the black ghetto (and this one's actually pretty nice, as ghettos go), nixes her complicated hairdo in favor of more down-home, ethnically correct curls, and takes an honest job as a waitress. All of this soul-searching pays off in a big exclamation-point kind of way and while characters get exactly the redemption or the damnation they deserve.

Perry has made millions bringing stuff like this to live theaters across the country, a fact that at least challenges dismissals of Diaryand its ilk as merely formulaic. Yes, the script is deadeningly literal. Yes, it traffics freely in stereotypes: the good wife, the pathetic crack addict, the evil drug dealer and, of course, the irascible, gun-wielding matriarch/grandma, played to hilarious effect by Perry himself, whose outrageous image is being heavily marketed to sell the film to moviegoers more interested in straight-up comedy than in sermons.

Which makes Diarynot so different from hordes of other black films in the hip-hop age that are just as standardized, though often in the opposite way, as dark, violent tales from the hood. Diaryis an antidote to all that. Like all gospel plays, it's outrageous but clean. There is no bloodshed or gratuitous swearing. Unlike the denizens of the black ghettos most often portrayed, more or less pornographically, onscreen, Diary'speople have real families, real hopes and aspirations. Here, spirituality and inner strength triumph over chaos. Even as I cringed at Diary'spredictableness and deliberate unsubtlety, I was relieved to be watching a romance blossom between two black people who were both employed, articulate and matinee-idol pretty. The pathologies of poverty were there, but they didn't dominate. White people and the racial oppression and/or tension they invariably represent in black cinema were absent altogether. As I sat listening to Elise's earnest “Dear Diary” voice-overs, it occurred to me once more that real equality, at least in the realm of popular entertainment, may lie less with opportunities to be great than with opportunities to be mediocre.

Black people, in other words, have as much right to produce and enjoy Diaryas whites have a right to produce and enjoy paint-by-number films with thin plots and happy endings, geared mostly toward profitability (case in point: TheWeddingDate). Once we don't have to agonize about every black film meeting impossibly high standards or stooping to abominably low expectations, we will have truly arrived. Tyler Perry, arguably—and for all that his script reflects an increasing black trend toward apolitical, if moral, conservatism—has staked out this rare middle ground.


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