In Charles Burnett’s classic film Killer of Sheep (1977), the mother in the film played brilliantly by Kaycee Moore, scolds her son for calling her “Ma Dear” because it sounds “country and back woods.” Shot in black and white, Burnett’s cinematic masterpiece takes place in Watts and highlights the class division that is rearing its ugly head in contemporary debates about the character of Madea, found in Tyler Perry’s plays and films.
African Americans have a love/hate relationship with Madea — the gun-toting, trash talking, frumpy old lady who demands respect at all costs. Film mogul Perry plays the character of Madea, who spews venom and homespun wisdom simultaneously. A film scene that can have one falling out laughing is the same scene that will have someone else clutching her pearls. This varied response to the character of Madea highlights class conflicts that viewer’s experience when interacting with this character.
To some she is hilarious and on point; to others, she is yet another example of the degradation of Black women by continuing to perpetuate the stereotype of the Mammy. Some argue that she’s not a Mammy figure, but I would argue that she is a neo-form of a Mammy – possesses all of the characteristics of the Mammy figure (heavy set, asexual, cantankerous, protector of the home) with a psychological twist (free thinking, influential, strategic thinker).
What’s most interesting about this character is the ire directed at Madea and not at Perry, who is making millions by continuing to produce films starring Madea. Yes, another Black man playing a fat, Black woman is making more money than any fat, Black woman has made playing a fat, Black woman, save Oprah Winfrey’s turn as Sophia in The Color Purple (1985). Perry has used the character of Madea to turn himself into a household name, stacking millions in the process.
So, love her or hate her, the character of Madea is here to stay if for no other reason than it has been proven over and over again that movies featuring Madea like characters, succeed. Gone with the Wind (1939) – $198,655,278; The Nutty Professor (1996) – $128,769,345; Nutty Professor II The Klumps (2000) – $123,307,945; Big Momma’s House (2000) – $117,559,438; and yes, even Bringing Down the House (2003), which grossed $133,000,000. This is just in the United States, and we won’t even mention television.
People forget that Hollywood is an industry that is invested in perpetuating stereotypes of all groups. Why? Stereotypes are a type of cultural short-hand that allow people to connect with a character, having never met anyone who remotely resembles said character. That doesn’t make it right – it just is what it is. (read more)
This article originally appeared on TheLoop21.com, where Nsenga serves as managing editor.