Assessing the Cultural Currency of Whiteness in Tyler Perry's Latest Madea Film
Each installment of Tyler Perry's Madea franchise guarantees the restoration of order in the landmine of the domestic sphere. Be it the punishment of an impertinent young adult or the reprimand of distracted parents who allow her to act out, we count on Madea's courage to speak the truth. When she accepts the challenge, she is pardoned for every inane comedic antic. For instance, in Madea's Family Reunion, we flinch when she reaches in the back seat of the car (butt to camera) to slap the disrespectful runaway Nikki (Keke Palmer). All is forgiven, however, when she inspires Nikki to believe in herself.
Audiences excuse the two punches in the face to the rude Black male teenager who yells out "shut-up old lady" on the school bus in that same film. In Madea's One Big Happy Family, she drives her Cadillac through a fast food restaurant but we absolve her of that when she delivers a back-handed slap to H.J. (Stevie Wash, Jr.) for his ill-manners towards her and when she demands that the parents take back their authority within their own household. We forgive her because Perry made her our own mediator in chaos, and we know that she loves us.
Madea's Witness Protection, however, showcases a Madea with a different approach to chastising white young adults. In addition, the casting of Denise Richards recalls a certain moment in Black film history. These choices bring to relief a film-viewing uneasiness. In summary, Cindy Needleman (Danielle Campbell), daughter of George Needleman (Eugene Levy) and step-daughter to Kate (Denise Richards), is a white teenager who is abruptly thrown into the witness protection program. Her father was set-up to take the fall for a mob-backed Ponzi scheme. The prosecutor (Tyler Perry) hides them in Madea's house under witness protection, and it is there that Cindy acts out.
As aforementioned, in all other Madea films, Madea rightly broaches no patience for insolent Black young adults. In Witness Protection, however, Madea searches for reasons why Cindy is so mad and angry. Cindy tells her stepmother to "go to hell" and, without reserve hollers "you suck" and "I hate you" at her father. In one scene Cindy frustrates Madea's attempts to awaken her. She yells "Go away", and throws a pillow at Madea. A furious Madea pours a bucket of water on the bad-mannered teen. Suddenly the physical violence dispatched to Nikki, H.J., and the student on the school bus isn't so forgivable. For sure Cindy is not Madea's child, nor is she a relative -- but neither are the other young adults. Nikki, for instance, is a runaway placed in foster care with Madea. In the end, impertinent white young adults need understanding and a "cooling off"; impertinent Black young adults deserve a slap, a punch, and/or a battle royal with Madea.
The casting choice of the lithe Denise Richards for Kate Needleman also changes the Madea dynamic. Kate and Madea side-by-side reflect a popular pair in Black film history: Scarlett O'Hara (Vivian Leigh) and Mammy (Hattie McDaniel). The über-thin white delicate body compared to that of the rotund Black body ensures two things: the delicate sexy Kate (desirable) and the desexualized and harsh maturity of Madea (undesirable). Consider the Yoga scene. Joe (Madea's brother, also played by Perry) signifies on Madea's elephantine buttocks during his lecherous eyeballing of Kate's slim rear-end. Kate stands long and lean in her warrior and tree poses in the living room while Madea prepares breakfast. The camera follows Joe's focus through Kate and lands on Madea's behind. In Joe's eyes, Madea is a "wildebeest in its natural habitat" and her butt must be hungry because it is "chewing through [her] dress." We laugh.
Wait a minute: Laughing doesn't feel so good.
Tyler Perry treats us with an array of Black women body types, and Madea fits comfortably within that community. Joe's taunts generally are dismissed possibly because we all have a Joe/Josephine in the family. "Pay 'im no mind," we shrug. Witness Protection, though, casts an ominous shadow on Joe's treatment of Madea in the presence of this white family.
An assault on Madea on the silver screen amongst an all-Black cast is one thing; but Joe's insult to Madea to privilege Kate's white threadlike build at her expense is unforgivable. Madea, when placed against the backdrop of white womanhood, stands as our Matriarch. She is our Elder. She is our Mediator. We intuitively are aware of her stature/status throughout every cinematic portrayal of her. Inside and outside our community she deserves our respect. It is a disappointment that Madea is not afforded this courtesy in Witness Protection.
Dr. Kwakiutl Dreher is Associate Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.