One of the biggest box-office surprises of 2005 was Tyler Perry's comedy Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Made for a meager $5.5 million, the film eventually grossed over $50 million. It comes as no surprise, then, that the film's plus-sized matriarch—played by Tyler Perry himself—is back. Mable "Madea" Simmons continues to dish out her trademark blend of physical comedy and crass, street-wise wisdom to family and friends. As the title implies, Madea's Family Reunion is all about relationship—the good, the bad, the ugly and the funny.
The story revolves around the romantic endeavors of Madea's two nieces, half sisters Lisa and Vanessa. Lisa is engaged to a wealthy investment banker named Carlos whose debonair exterior cloaks a violent temper. Vanessa, a single mom who has two children by two different fathers, finds herself passionately—and chastely—pursued by a bus driver named Frankie.
Vanessa and Frankie's growing tenderness for one another makes it harder and harder for Lisa to deny the abuse in her own relationship. And the advent of Madea's huge family reunion ultimately proves the perfect place for Lisa to hear about the true nature of love from a chorus of older relatives eager to share their accumulated wisdom with a young woman desperately in need of it.
Many characters in Madea's Family Reunion offer wisdom and correction. Chief among those dispensing counsel is Madea, who continually blurts out proverb-like kernels of truth. It's Madea's no-nonsense haranguing that helps both Vanessa and Lisa find their way forward through their respective fears and insecurities.
Madea also finds herself the unexpected foster parent to Nikki, an angry junior-high girl desperately in need of "old school" structure. And the matriarch knows just what to do. For example, when Madea suspects Nikki is cutting class, she goes to school, talks to her teachers, gets her homework and then disciplines her (with a belt) when she gets home. (A debate could be had about the impulsiveness of Madea's corporal punishment—and her coarse words related to it—but her actions clearly side with Proverbs 13:24, not hurtful abuse. And the discipline works wonders for Nikki.)
When Nikki is afraid to get on the bus because of what people call her, Madea instructs, "Folk gon' talk about you 'til the day you die. Ain't nothin' you can do about it. But it ain't what people call you; it's what you answer to." It's Madea's advice, too, that propels Lisa to finally stop submitting to the physical abuse Carlos deals out. (More on that in "Violent Content.")
At the family reunion, a group of elderly women walk through throngs of young family members, noting their behavior. The eldest, 96-year-old Aunt Lilly, frowns when she notices a group of girls dancing suggestively and boys arguing over gambling. Then, the women ring a bell to summon the entire family together, and deliver a revival-like message challenging them to remember the sacrifice of their enslaved ancestors, and to act accordingly. "Do you know who you are?" one woman asks. "What happened to the pride and dignity and love and respect we have for one another? Young black men, take your place. We need you. Your sons and daughters need you. ... Young black women, you are more than your thighs and your hips. You are beautiful, strong, powerful. I want more from you. Take your place." Later, Madea adds, "It ain't where you're comin' from, it's where you're going" that's important.
In Plugged In Online's review of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Christopher Lyon wrote, "Diary contains some of the strongest Christian messages I've seen on the big screen lately." Those words are equally true of Diary's sequel, and they're almost exactly what I was thinking as I walked out of the film.
On Frankie and Vanessa's first date, he tells her straightforwardly, "I'm a Christian. I try to do the right thing." His unselfish love for Vanessa and her children demonstrates that his faith means something. Later Vanessa tells him that because she finally gave her life over to God, she now wants to remain celibate until she's married. The pair makes good on her pledge (which he not only goes along with, but implies that he has the same commitment).
As the filmmaker sets out to convince Lisa (and moviegoers along with her) that she shouldn't enter into an abusive marriage, a relative tells her, "I've had an opportunity few people ever get. God has blessed me to share time and space with a man He designed just for me. I'm not just blessed, I'm divinely favored." The idea that God has divinely created certain people to be with others is reiterated several times. Later, Vanessa tells Frankie, "You are a breathtaking reflection of God's love for me, of how He pursued me and loved me even when I didn't love myself." Frankie responds, "When I look at you, I know there is a God. And that He loved me so much that He took the time to create you just for me."
In addition to such specific references, numerous characters mention glorifying God and praising the Lord. And Vanessa is seen reading a Bible. But on the other side of the spiritual coin looms Madea. She brags that she only goes to church for weddings and funerals. And she lies to a judge when she claims, "I feed the homeless and help the hungry. I'm goin' out into the highways and byways doin' what the Lord told me to do, praise Him, thank you Jesus!"
Lisa, who lives with Carlos, is seen twice in revealing lingerie. (The camera doesn't dip below her shoulders as he removes her nightgown and leads her to a bath.) Lisa and Vanessa wear low-cut shirts on several occasions. Young women at the family reunion wear short shorts and tie off their T-shirts, revealing midriffs. Vanessa and a friend hire a male stripper to perform for Lisa (he removes his shirt and hauls Lisa up onto his hips to simulate sex with her).
One of the most egregious scenes in the movie finds Madea's brother, Joe, acting the part of a dirty old man as he shamelessly leers at a young woman's backside as she bends down to get him a drink. He and several other men ask her to repeat her task over and over, and Joe clandestinely videotapes her. In a movie that's so obviously about personal growth, Joe seems to be a foil who shows us what happens when that maturation fails to occur. Nevertheless, this scene in particular seemed stronger than it needed to be to make this point.
Vanessa tells Lisa that when they were children their mother forced her to have sex with Lisa's father so that he would stay with the family. Victoria says that her mother did the same thing with her ("She traded me for $10 and a fix"). This painful confrontation reveals the devastating cycle of generational dysfunction. It ends with Vanessa forgiving her mother despite never receiving her mother's sorrow: "I forgive you with all my might. And I'm going to pray that God have mercy on your soul."
A nasty conversation between Victoria and Carlos includes allusions to his anatomy and hints at the idea that the two have sexual feelings for each other. Nikki tells Madea that her last foster mom told her she was only good for selling her body. Joe overhears and makes a joke about it. And indeed, Joe is famous for cracking sexual one-liners and digging up double entendres.
[Spoiler Warning] When Lisa confesses that Carlos is beating her daily, Vanessa and Madea demand that she stand up to his abuse. Eventually Lisa takes Madea's specific advice: Throwing a pot of hot grits in Carlos' face and bashing him six or seven times with an iron skillet. Though these violent acts likely would have severely injured or killed Carlos in a real-world situation, it's clear that Lisa's long-delayed retaliation symbolizes her unwillingness to absorb his physical abuse any longer. The scene also has a slapstick feel to it, unlike the deadly realism of other scenes where Carlos hits Lisa—which we see him do several times. He also tries to drag her out onto the balcony of their high-rise condo, threatening that he'll toss her over if she ever tries to leave him.
Madea gets on the school bus and slaps at a student who mouths off to her. Earlier, she slaps at Nikki for refusing to stop popping her gum. Victoria slaps Vanessa across the face. Vanessa responds by punching her mother.
Crude or Profane Language
"H---" is a favorite profanity. It pops up about 20 times. Other vulgarities ("d--n," "a--," "b--ch" and "bastard") are used once or twice each. God's name is improperly interjected six or eight times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink wine, mixed drinks and champagne on several occasions at restaurants. Beer is seen at the family reunion.
Other Negative Elements
Joe and Madea's aging sibling relationship is one of constant, mean-spirited sniping. And while it's clearly a picture of what you don't want your family to be, the undercurrent of humor and the comfort level both seem to have with it make it seem oddly appealing. Victoria is a cunning, conniving woman who will use her own daughters any way necessary to get what she wants. This includes trying to force Lisa into a loveless, abusive marriage for personal, financial gain. Even when confronted with her awful misdeeds, Victoria refuses to take responsibility or even apologize.
Joe passes gas frequently (and loudly).
Madea's Family Reunion is a curious—and compelling—film. Even though it's been marketed as a comedy (and it does have many comedic scenes), at its core it's a sober movie about serious issues. Domestic violence. Sexual abuse. Family dysfunction. Wealth and poverty. God's redemptive work. These aren't the kinds of subjects I'm used to seeing in a comedy. Hence my use of the word curious.
Writer/director Tyler Perry is to be congratulated for creating strong characters whose lives rest on bedrock principles of morality, discipline and, in Vanessa's and Frankie's cases, faith. Unlike so many depictions of Christians in recent years, Madea presents the pair as three-dimensional people whose love for God shapes their decisions.
Given such a positive worldview, I'm left questioning why Perry felt he needed to go as far as he did with some of the more salacious and gratuitous content in the film. I certainly could have done without Joe and his geriatric buddies lusting after a young relative, for example. Ditto the stripper whose act is interrupted. Going for these cheap laughs instead of concentrating on genuine ones detracts from a film that otherwise all but screams reminders about the importance of making wise choices, honoring God, and making respect, love and safety the center of every family.