The Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005)
Written by Tyler Perry
Directed by Darren Grant
Tyler Perry is one of the most commercially successful Black filmmakers in American history. That is a fact that we cannot deny. His personal net worth exceeds $800 million; that metric means a lot in America. What about Perry’s films has profoundly affected movies in the United States? What draws audiences to his work? I want to explore that, as well as the controversy surrounding him and his divisive Madea character. We’re going to unpack Perry’s ideology and see how the nature of Madea interacts with that. We won’t be watching every Madea film, but we will watch many of them. I credit the lovely May Leitz and her excellent tier list of Madea movies for inspiring this series.
Before we talk about the movie, let’s talk about who Tyler Perry is and where Madea came from. Emmitt Perry Jr was born in New Orleans in 1969 to Willie Maxine Perry and her carpenter husband, Emmitt Perry. From right away, Emmitt was subjected to physical abuse by his angry, drunken father. This got to the point where the young man tried to kill himself to escape the violence. However, Perry’s mother took him to church regularly, and he found it to be where he could find the peace that wasn’t present at home. At age 16, Emmitt changed his name to Tyler to further separate himself from his father. As an adult, Perry unlocked repressed memories of sexual abuse from a friend’s mother at 10. He’d also learn one of his own friends was sexually molested by Perry Sr. Eventually, Perry took a DNA test and discovered the man he’d thought was his biological father was, in fact, not.
At 21, Perry moved to Atlanta to begin a new life. A year later, he spent his life savings to front a morality play performed in his church. It was not received well, so he kept refining his craft. By age 28, Perry had reworked the piece and put it on again; this time, it was a hit. By 2005, Perry had already sold more than $100 million in ticket sales, $30 million in video sales, and $20 million in associated merchandise from church stage plays. Moving into movies was a pretty natural decision, taking his plays and reworking them into films.
The character of Madea came out of different points of inspiration. The main ones were Perry’s mother and aunt. Perry would say about his mother, “She would beat the hell out of you but make sure the ambulance got there in time to make sure they could set your arm back.” He spoke of these relationships as loving ones but also tinged with some pretty intense domestic violence, likely not as bad as what his father was dishing out. Madea first appeared in the play I Can Do Bad All By Myself (1999). Madea Simmons would already be the role she became most famous for, a kind but tough older female relative dishing out her personal philosophy on relationship & child-rearing. How the character has evolved & changed over the following years is part of what we’ll do in this series.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman follows Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise) as her marriage to successful Atlanta lawyer Charles (Steve Harris) falls apart. He’s been seeing another woman and even has children with her. The couple lives apart until one day when Charles has Helen’s things removed so he can move into their mansion with his mistress. Helen is obviously distraught and finds her way to her Aunt Madea’s house to seek solace. Madea lives with her gruff & dirty-joking brother Joe (also Perry), and they create a place for Helen to put her life in order. Eventually, Helen ends up in a burgeoning relationship with moving truck driver Orlando (Shemar Moore), but complications in the divorce send her back to Charles. That reunion allows her to wrap up the first chapter of her life and begin the next.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman has the skeleton of a plot that Perry would copy and often repeat during this first stage of his career. The archetype of the “angry black woman” stereotype is essentially to understand Perry’s often didactic films. Helen’s anger stems from her husband’s lack of passion and affection in their marriage and his redirection to his mistress. At first, Madea supports Helen and encourages her to go back to the house and mess up the mistress’s clothing while looking for cash that Charles has stashed around the house. Helen does this but gets caught and has to work as a waitress to support herself.
There’s a subplot included in the film about Brian (Tyler Perry again), Helen’s cousin and another relative of Madea’s. His wife, Debrah, is a drug addict. He’s kicked her out of the house, and she lives on the streets, searching for her next fix. We get a scene around the movie’s midpoint where Debrah begs to come home, and Brian denies her because she won’t get clean. They have two children, so it seems partially reasonable, but there is a pretty awful cruelty to how he speaks to her.
In these two women’s stories, we begin to see Perry’s ideology emerge. Both cases are held up as examples of women pushing against what they should. Helen is partially justified because her husband is cheating, but she faithfully returns to care for him when he suffers a debilitating injury. The film presents this as the good, virtuous thing a Christian woman should do. However, there is an instance where she threatens to drown him in the bathtub before she takes control of the situation, which is bizarre, to say the least. The most cruelty is heaped on Debrah, whose moment of redemption occurs when her daughter sings in the choir one Sunday. This serves as a place where all the characters come together and, through singing and dancing, find some form of redemption.
The Boondocks did an excellent job of summarizing the plot of this film which you can see for yourself.
This is not the most comedic of Perry’s films, and Madea is definitely in a supporting role. She’s the comic relief, so the character will appear with a quip or bit of advice when the script needs some lightening up. The two things you need to know about Madea going forward with this series is that she always tells Black women to seek Jesus but carries a gun (later changed to a hammer) in her purse that she wields pretty liberally. Violence and moral correction are always intertwined in Perry’s work.
As the Boondocks clip above pointed out, Perry’s films have been heavily criticized for their colorism. Dark-skinned men (like Charles) are evil, while light-skinned men (like Orlando) are always good. This gets repeated in Meet the Browns, which will be the next film in the series. The film’s tone is so mixed, with some weighty moralistic scenes, lots of violence (Charles is shot by a client), and a sense of meanness towards anyone who doesn’t adhere to a traditional understanding of womanhood. For example, Perry seems to say it’s not okay for a woman to leave her man even if he is abusive until she “gets right with God.” As we continue, you’ll see how Madea is often a way for Perry to mock women while also being a male voice hidden within a female form.