A Madea Christmas (2013)
Written & Directed by Tyler Perry
There are three distinct phases to the Madeaverse that I’ve noticed. From Diary of a Mad Black Woman through Madea’s Big Happy Family, these are mostly stage adaptations featuring predominantly Black casts. Beyond Tyler Perry, there may be one or two “major” Black actors in the production. For instance, Blair Underwood in Madea’s Family Reunion or Angela Bassett in Meet the Browns. Previous to this film was Madea’s Witness Protection, one of the series’s three most financially successful pictures; a budget of $20 million turned into $67 million in box office returns. That film incorporated more white actors (Eugene Levy, Denise Richards, Doris Roberts), which led to the following strange & short era with A Madea Christmas. This was when Perry tried to make movies that would also appeal to white people.
Madea (Perry) is working at a local department store after encouragement from her great-niece Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford), also an employee at the store. Things go poorly as the elderly woman does not do customer service, especially with such hostile customers. Both women decide to leave and visit Eileen’s daughter Lacey who is working as a teacher in the small town of Bucktussle, Alabama. Eileen is hopeful that Lacey will eventually get back together with her ex-boyfriend Oliver. She doesn’t know that Lacey is already involved with Conner, a white man who has developed a unique strain of corn that has angered the local farmers. Madea & Eileen’s arrival coincides with Conner’s parents, Buddy (Larry the Cable Guy) and Kim (Kathy Najimy), who must pretend their son is just the groundskeeper of Lacey’s farm. A lot of little plots result in a disappointing entry in the Madeaverse.
This is the first film where I think I could feel Perry straining at the formula he so often uses. The plot is barely held together, and the overall filmmaking quality is a marked drop from Big Happy Family. There’s a sense that Perry was trying to appeal to the Pure Flix crowd. That makes sense, as his morality plays share the same primary roots as the litany of low-budget Christian movies being churned out. I think the biggest problem with A Madea Christmas is a lack of dedication to a single thing. It’s a Christmas movie that doesn’t really feel like Christmas. It starts to feel like something is off; Madea has always been chaotic but usually presented in a way that still leaves her charming & likable. I get the sense that Perry doesn’t know what to do with Madea anymore, she’s not exceptionally funny in this picture, and all she does is deliver the moral at the end.
The moral in this instance is probably one of Perry’s most disconcerting. Eileen discovers that her daughter has married a white man. This upsets her. We learn it is because Eileen’s husband, Lacey’s father, abandoned the family for a white woman. If you understand Black history and community in America, you could see why she would have a legitimate reason to be upset. Systemically, white people are at the center of creating broken Black families. For example, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis wouldn’t allow husbands or teenage boys to live in the facility, leading to government-caused fracturing of families. Yet, does the film show even an ounce of sympathy towards Eileen? Nope.
The movie’s sympathies go to Buddy and Kim, who are shown to be good white people. However, Madea chastises Eileen for not immediately accepting her daughter’s choice. Is there anything wrong with interracial relationships? Of course not. But, should we not show sensitivity to someone from a historically marginalized group who has also directly experienced trauma from this to have some time to process it? Perry seems to suggest no; Eileen needs to get over herself.
Despite being filmed in Georgia, Perry has employed a lot of non-Southerners to play Southerners. Larry the Cable Guy, aka Dan Whitney, is very well-known for putting on the thick drawl as an affectation of the character. There’s Kathy Najimy, Chad Michael Murray, and Alicia Witt, all putting on accents with mixed results. We all know Najimy as Peggy Hill, so that’s exactly what she sounds like for this movie. This is the least Black Madea film, and I think it suffers for that reason. Perry is appealing to that white, Christian crowd and, as a result, loses the appeal of the last picture I reviewed.
Perry’s work has always concerned itself with moralizing from a very Americanized reactionary point of view. The messages learned by characters in this film are no more refined than something you might see in a bottom-of-the-barrel sitcom. No one really understands anything; they just accept things and are suddenly flipped from being upset to happy. There’s no space in Perry’s world for complexity or nuance regarding human emotion. This is what leads to the incoherent Jesus-fueled violent outbursts of Madea, this mashing up of thoughtless reaction couched within an excuse of Christianity. The next phase in the Madea films wouldn’t happen for three more years, with Madea not appearing in any movies during that time. So when Perry returned to her, it would be with surprising anger.