Madea’s Big Happy Family (2011)
Written & Directed by Tyler Perry
This is my personal favorite of all the Madea films we watched. It’s all the elements coming together to make what feels like a genuine feature comedy. While it was based on a stage play produced the previous year, Big Happy Family is presented more as a film. It has the highest budget to date of any Madea film at $25 million though it would make considerably less at the box office than the previous entry, Madea Goes to Jail. Here we have Madea at her most animated, doing both physical comedy and some amusing improvised scenes as Tyler Perry brings in Mr. Brown & Cora and introduces Aunt Bam into the mix.
Shirley (Loretta Devine) is at the doctor’s with Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) and learns her cancer has gotten worse. She only has a few weeks to live and wants to spend that time with her family. Cora Brown (Tamela Mann) has also shown up at the hospital for her father, Mr. Brown (David Mann), who is told he needs a colonoscopy. You can imagine that comedy ensues. We first see Madea (Perry) as she is ordering breakfast at a fast food drive. This is also the scene where we meet Sabrina (Teyana Taylor), a woman whose yelling the name “Byron” will be both hilarious and grating, sometimes simultaneously. The service is not to Madea’s liking, so she, reasonably, drives her car through the dining room.
The comedic characters in this film are hilarious. Mr. Brown, Cora, and Aunt Bam make every scene better, and their quips and observations feel very integrated into the overall story, which will not stay consistent in this series. But even funnier, and much to my surprise is Perry as Madea. He does reprise his role of Joe, but it is Madea who shines here. This act has many problematic layers, but Perry captures something I’ve observed from working with Southern Black women in public education. They use two voices, one is their honest & personal voice, and the other is their clear-enunciation & professional voice. It’s something everyone does to some extent, but I’ve always found it fascinating. You’ve likely heard of code-switching, and it’s a way marginalized groups navigate the often hostile white spaces they must go into. Perry is hilarious in how Madea reacts and makes these vocal changes.
It wouldn’t be a Madea film if there wasn’t a dysfunctional family to fix, often because of problems between the sexes. Shirley’s children are an absolute mess, and Madea wants them to come together as their dying mother’s last wish. Byron (Shad Moss) is dating a girl who encourages him to go back to selling drugs so she can have more money. He’s also dealing with Sabrina, who shares custody with their baby daughter. Tammy is married to Harold, and their marriage is just a seething ball of hate. It also doesn’t help that their two preteen sons are spoiled rotten. And then there’s Kimberly (Shannon Kane), an upper-middle-class professional who looks down on her siblings. Her husband, Calvin, is more down to earth and doesn’t like her snobbish attitude.
The interpersonal conflicts are, as expected, overstuffed. There’s a third-act series of revelations that cause tonal whiplash where one moment, we’re in the middle of Madea’s schtick, only for her to tell us someone was sexually abused by an uncle in the following sentence. That second line isn’t played as a joke, but its juxtaposition to Madea’s ridiculous behavior will elicit a laugh out of shock. This reveal is used as an explanation as to why one wife is cold & distant from her husband. Unfortunately, it is still followed up with her husband giving her an ultimatum about changing her behavior and not much empathy on his part for what she has gone through. And it sure seems like the film endorses him over her.
Byron is a character being pulled back into drugs and crime by a “gold-digging Jezebel.” His girlfriend Renee has zero interest in interacting with his baby daughter and demands her boyfriend sell drugs to make her money. Byron does have a legitimate job, but it doesn’t make enough. You would think this might be an opportunity for Perry to talk about the financial struggles of young Black people in modern society, how conditions have worsened, and they have difficulty surviving with legal, low-wage work. But, nope, he just needs that woman to stay in her place, and everything will work out for him.
There are many things here to critique, but there’s a lot to love. It doesn’t seem we often get a Black-centered family comedy of this production value and quality. The thing that’s proven the hardest to do is to figure out exactly where Perry falls inside this mix of ideology. Here it seems that Madea is the voice of his audience, calling out rude little boys and telling men to pull their pants up, both in long, drawn-out monologues that intrude on the greater narrative. There’s also a strong contradiction between Madea’s calls to go to Jesus and her wild, violent behavior. As we get further into this film series, the gap between Perry & Madea will grow until it reaches an actively hateful level on the screen. But before we get to that, we’ll enjoy A Madea Christmas next.