Although the film’s financial success is secured—it topped the box office with a $21 million dollar gross its debut weekend and has since passed the $40 million dollar mark—critical opinion of the film has been almost unanimously negative.
To that end, the film’s fans have busied themselves filling reviewers’ inboxes and various internet message boards with passionate apologia for the film and ardent denunciations of its detractors.
The film delivers exactly what its title promises. The titular “mad black woman” is divorced by her philandering husband, (literally) kicked out of their palatial home, and forced to resume residence with her psychotic grandmother Madea. Just as it seems things can get no worse, they get a little better: an improbably handsome and sensitive factory worker becomes enamored of her and initiates a cautious courtship.
Diary is the brainchild of Atlanta-based playwright Tyler Perry; the movie is adapted from his play of the same name. Perry’s work is immensely popular; Newsweek estimates that his stage productions have grossed over $70 million, but almost exclusively in the black community.
Perry operates at the margins of the theatrical community; his works are not staged on Broadway, off-Broadway, or even off-off-Broadway. The theatres that host his productions comprise the evocatively titled “chitlin’ circuit:” a collective of venues that specialize in black and religious-themed dramas.
The etymology of the phrase “chitlin’ circuit” is rich in symbolism: “chitlin’” is a slang form of “chitterling,” which is itself a euphemism for pork entrails. Chitlin’s have been a staple of black cooking since the slave era: plantation masters considered the organ meats refuse and, thus, suitable fare for human chattel. This historical promotion of junk meat into ethnic cuisine is metaphoric of Perry’s transformation of marginal black theater into a lucrative cultural force.
Perry’s plays are perfect chitlin’ circuit fodder: they recreate and comment on the black experience with a deft blend of comedy and pathos. His productions often feature incarceration, addiction, adultery, and financial ruin. But these are always overcome in the end by the positive forces of family, Christianity, and good humor. Perry’s oeuvre transcends entertainment: it is a compelling dramatization of black America’s collective anxieties and hopes.
In his recent essay “Who is that mad black woman,” Roger Ebert reports that his one-star review of Diary elicited more angry correspondence than any other film he has ever reviewed—including Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ combined.
Clearly, something is afoot beyond the usual disconnect between critical and popular consensus. Fans of Son of the Mask, for instance, did not think it necessary to mount a massive letter-writing campaign against its disparagers.
Diary, like Passion and Fahrenheit before it, has become emblematic of a larger cultural divide in American society. The latter films exacerbated tensions between red and blue America; Diary has inflamed resentments between black and white.
The missives populating the subject column for Diary’s Internet Movie Database message board bear evidence of the controversy surrounding the film: “Roger Ebert is the BIGGEST RACIST ever!,” “What’s the deal with all the RACE issues people?!,” and “WHY ARE YA’LL HATING ON US??” are all open threads.
But is this really the case? Were the intentions of Diary’s detractors really so sinister? I don’t believe so. The problem, as I see it, lies in the critical establishment’s failure to consider the film in its appropriate cultural context. Diary connects with its target audience on a variety of levels—social, spiritual, and aesthetic—often inaccessible to the viewer approaching the film tabula rasa.
The critics that panned Diary didn’t seem to understand the film’s important social function or its cult appeal. Their efforts to critique the film according to the usual measures of genre, tone, and theme failed to capture essence of what made the movie so appealing and vital.
Compare the critical reception of Diary to that of Sideways and you come closer to understanding the cultural biases that influence critical opinion. A number of movie reviewers have suggested that Sideways proved so resonant with their peers because its protagonist resembles, in vocation and disposition, the professional critic: discerning and bilious in equal measure. Diary contains no such analogs, and much of its criticism is detached and dismissive in tone.
When Diary’s critics do become engaged, the tone borders on malevolence, most of which is directed against the grandmother Madea character. Perry acts the part himself—in drag—with such reckless abandon he makes Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire appear a model of subtlety and restraint. During the course of the film, Madea brandishes a pistol, vandalizes a mansion with a chainsaw, and smokes copious amounts of marijuana.
Diary’s detractors correctly acknowledge that Madea is a crass and unbelievable caricature. What they miss is that her complete lack of verisimilitude is deliberate and critical to the aesthetic that Perry endeavors to create.
Without Madea’s brazen comic relief, the film’s darker themes and overt religiosity would be intolerable. Perry strives not for emotional consistency but for a harmonious blend of disparate emotions. Diary’s tone is a compromise between the tragic and the ridiculous.
The film’s other performances are tender and believable. In particular, Kimberly Elise and Shemar Moore, portraying the “mad black woman” and her blue-collar suitor respectively, really shine. Their nuanced portrayals sell the romance, and Perry’s script wisely sidesteps the manufactured histrionics that mar so many cinematic romances.
It also bears mentioning that Diary doesn’t belabor its viewers with a gratuitous sex scene; you know Elise’s and Moore’s characters love each other because they act like people in love, not because you see them writhing in soft-focus. If nothing else, Perry should receive a special achievement award for making chastity seem sexy again.
All in all, there is a great deal to recommend Diary. It falls far short of greatness, but it beats mediocrity by a considerable margin. I suspect, however, that you can only take away from Diary as much as you bring to it.
Perry’s film is very aware of its location at the margins of popular culture, and its form and content reflect its “outsideness.” Perhaps future critics will venture beyond themselves and engage the film in its indigenous context.