Movie Review – Meet the Browns

Meet the Browns (2008)
Written by Tyler Perry and Reuben Cannon
Directed by Tyler Perry

By 2008, Tyler Perry had directed four films following the financial success of Diary of Mad Black Woman. That film was number 1 at the box office on its opening weekend and would make $50.7 million worldwide. This propelled the money machine that has been going ever since, though it has slowed a bit in recent years. I chose Meet the Browns as my next film for a couple reasons. The first was that it introduces Mr. Brown and his daughter Cora who are important to the next movie in the series. The second is that Madea’s role is a cameo but communicates some wild new ideas about her that weren’t present in Diary. The plot is also very much in line with the critique from The Boondocks of colorism in Perry’s work. 

Brenda Brown-Davis (Angela Bassett) is a struggling single mother living in Chicago. One day, she receives a letter from her estranged father’s family outside of Atlanta, letting Brenda know her dad has passed away. At first, it doesn’t seem workable to take herself and her three children to the funeral, but everyone at her job gets laid off. Her son Mike Jr. gets courted by Harry (Rick Fox), an NBA talent scout, but Brenda wants her son to finish college and go to college. Harry is insistent but also seems to be sweet on Brenda. Harry shows up again when the family arrives in Georgia. He just so happens to live in the small town and was friends with her father.

The Brown family turns out to be a mixed bag. LB (Frankie Faison) is the level-headed middle child who knows more about his late father than the rest of his kin. Vera (Jenifer Lewis) was the baby of the family until Brenda showed up, and she doesn’t like it. The wildest member of the clan is Leroy Brown (David Mann), the eccentric eldest sibling who is always accompanied by his doting & often critical daughter Cora (Tamela Mann). Brenda must navigate the dynamics of this newly discovered family, the possibility of romance with Harry, and the idea of starting a new home in this small town.

This is another church morality play adapted with some changes for the big screen. One thing that stood out to me while watching the film was the acting style used in this genre. Because I had seen Angela Bassett in other work, I could tell she was affecting a different performance style that fit the energy expected from these plays. It’s sort of like when you watch an older film, and you pick up on the rhythm of voices and the way actors express emotion in a way that is different from modern styles of acting. In a contemporary context, it’s like comparing the acting styles of a Marvel movie and an intense independent drama. They are different levels of the same craft. This was a film where I found the two main female performances to be exceptional.

That other performance is given by the incredible Jenifer Lewis. I first encountered Lewis when she appeared as one of the aunties on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She has such a powerful presence and can play it in different ways. Lewis is currently in the Vanessa Bayer comedy series I Love That For You, and she plays the tough boss of the home shopping network. In that role, she presents something a little absurd but very emotionally complex. Using that same authoritative performance in Meet the Browns, Lewis transforms it into a farcical comedic delivery. You can tell this is the same actor doing the same essential thing but putting subtle twists and changes on it to deliver a different final product. I think it’s a great example of the strength of a great character actor.

Madea’s role in this film is relegated to a scene that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the narrative. I suspect it was added to the script to capitalize on the character’s growing popularity. Mr. Brown, who had his daughter Cora with Madea, we learn, is watching television when a high-speed chase comes on screen. It’s Madea with her brother Joe (both Perry) in a high-speed police pursuit as they are attempting to arrest her on a comically large amount of charges. There’s not much to say about it beyond adding this wild layer to the character that wasn’t present in Diary. She always couched her Christian advice with direct mentions of violence but being in opposition to the police is a new one.

The main narrative in this film concerns Brenda and her romance with Harry. Just like Helen in Diary, Brenda is contending with a dark-skinned man, the father of Mike Jr. She finds salvation in Harry, the light-skinned basketball scout. Like Diary, this film pushes the same moral: “Good” Christian women are demure, strong but not too strong, and “let a man be a man.” While Perry will publicly talk about his films being extremely popular among women and making the pictures with them in mind, I don’t feel he respects women, or at least certain types of women, very much at all. Submission is always shown to be the best path forward, which frames Madea as both a fount of male advice posing as a woman and a way to mock women. Perry’s films reinforce existing reactionary views on gender. As for LGBTQ characters, I have yet to see one in his movies, so I assume they simply don’t exist in the Madeaverse.

Perry’s work certainly provided many roles for Black actresses who were overlooked by the Hollywood system because of age. He should be applauded for that. However, the moral messages aimed at women at the core of these movies are deeply unsettling. Perry is obviously a knowledgeable person to have produced so many plays, films, and television series and showing he understands what his audience wants. It’s interesting to look at other contemporary Black filmmakers; Barry Jenkins is first in my mind, and look at how their art depicts women. Moonlight features a drug-addicted woman but presents her in a much more complex manner than any female addict I’ve seen in a Perry film. In Meet the Browns, Sofia Vergara plays Brenda’s best friend, who seems to have bipolar disorder and a bad reaction to weed. How she behaves after a single puff of the drug feels entirely divorced from reality. In Diary, there is another mentally ill female side character who loses her mind when smoking a joint. Men never have trouble handling weed in Perry’s movies. They are either evil dark-skinned men, virtuous light-skinned men, or a clown figure in the rare case of Mr. Brown. That is definitely the exception. 

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