It’s easy to dismiss the films of Tyler Perry, undisputed king of a niche multi-media empire of his own making, as broad, caricature-laden comedy populated by what Spike Lee famously labeled “coonery buffoonery.” But beneath the be-wigged, slapstick-y heft of Perry’s most famous character, Madea, and her often violent crusades in the name of family values — as seen in Friday’s Madea’s Witness Protection, the sassy grandmother’s seventh big-screen outing — lies a fount of subversive discussions of race, class, and self-examination. The only question is: Is Tyler Perry aware of it?
Perry, who dons the Madea dress once more in Witness Protection (grudgingly so, he tells Movieline — more on his mixed feelings about Madea below), wrote and directed the comedy after hitting upon an idea over dinner: What if Bernie Madoff had to move in with Madea as punishment for his fiscal crimes? Eugene Levy stars as a Wall Street accountant who agrees to testify against mobsters involved in a Ponzi scheme, only to be ushered, along with his family, into protective custody – Madea’s house, to be more precise.
It’s there, in this fish out of water set-up, that Perry plumbs more thoughtful ground. Economic responsibility is a theme, as Perry draws a direct line between the privileged suits that run the world’s financial institutions and the working class plebes whose life savings are often at stake. Race and class divides become blurred as Levy’s Jewish-American family finds common ground, and perhaps even stronger ties, with their equally uncomfortable hosts (Perry as both Madea and her cranky brother, Uncle Joe).
There’s just one thing about all the considered socio-cultural conversations seeded in the subtext of Witness Protection: Perry admits that he didn’t set out with any conscious agenda other than making himself laugh. “I just thought, ‘This is funny,’” he told Movieline, adding “What’s so great is that these thoughts that you’re raising for me, I will be thinking about.”
Read on as Tyler Perry talks with Movieline about his Madea character, why he is eager to retire her – if his audience will allow it — what he has to say to his critics, and why he jumped at the chance to play the lead in his forthcoming mainstream crossover pic, Alex Cross.
Especially compared to the more melodramatic tone of Big Happy Family, Madea’s Witness Protection is different in terms of its themes and characters — what sort of ground did you want to explore this time around?
I was actually having dinner with a friend and they said, “You know what would be great punishment for Bernie Madoff? If he had to move in with Madea.” So I took that thought and ran with it, just the thought of it made me laugh so hard. I said, “Let me write this — and who can I get to play it?” I thought of Eugene Levy. So the whole tone of this movie is about, if everything was taken away from you and you had to be forced to live a very simple life and focus on what is real, which is his family, how much would you change?
Another interesting new element, especially given your oeuvre of primarily African-American characters, is that this is a story about what might be considered “white people problems” — these are rich, country-clubbing suburbanites who are probably at the farthest remove from Madea’s world.
[Laughs] Yes, right.
And the story seems to be saying that one group’s problems are really everyone’s problems, certainly economically speaking — Eugene Levy’s character is involved in a financial scam that inadvertently has stolen money from Romeo’s church, for example.
There’s also a plot thread that suggests Eugene’s character might be half-black, which interestingly brought that point home even more — aligning the black and Jewish cultural experiences together, in a sense. How much were these unifying themes present for you in the process of making the film?
[Laughs] You’re trying to make it seem like I’m so smart! And that I did not even think about. I just thought, “This is funny — this is funny if they think Uncle Joe and [Eugene Levy’s mother] had a one-night stand and he thinks he’s his son.” I wasn’t even thinking at all about any of that.
Well, go ahead and run with it! Be my guest.
You delve into economic awareness and the avoidance of victimhood, with many of your characters dealing with the repercussions of these Wall Street scandals trickling down into their lives. One of the elements I admire in the Madea character is that she seems to be a proponent of personal responsibility, throughout the films.
Wow, again — I wasn’t thinking that either! What’s so great is that these thoughts that you’re raising for me, I will be thinking about. All I was doing was writing a simple story, I didn’t get into the subconscious of it. For me, after Colored Girls and Alex Cross and Good Deeds I wanted to do something where I just laughed. Even with Madea’s Big Happy Family, where one of the characters had cancer, I just wanted to do something where nobody’s sick, we’re all going to just laugh and have a good time, and remember why family is important.
I heard that Madea might be ringing the NASDAQ bell…
[Laughs] That I’d like to see! I don’t know who’s going to be playing Madea, but I’m going to be busy that day.
There are moments in Witness Protection that almost have a guerrilla-style Borat feel — the scenes with Madea in New York City, discovering different parts of her posh hotel in particular. There’s a real improvised feel to them. And there’s an outtake at the end involving Madea phoning down to the concierge to inquire about the bidet that’s pretty hilarious.
Yeah, but you know what the thing about that is? I’ve never seen Borat, but thinking about my mother and the first time she went to a really nice hotel, or the first time she had to go through an airport. So a lot of those things didn’t take me going very far to imagine or to create, because it is very much what is close to, or what has happened to, my own family.
Have you ever considered doing the Madea character as a sort of faux documentary along the lines of what Sacha Baron Cohen has done with Borat — just putting her out into the world to capture the way people react to her?
The only problem with that is, I would have to be in costume out in the world, and that won’t work for me. [Laughs] If I take Madea off the stage or have to put her in a room, I’m telling you… I am so uncomfortable in that costume. I can barely look at myself, I certainly don’t want other people looking at me.
You’ve voiced a similar sentiment before about the character and the costume — it seems like she may not be your favorite character to play, but you keep coming back to playing Madea because your audience loves her.
Absolutely. One hundred percent. It is definitely about the audience and it’s also about the amount of joy she brings to people, and the amount of people that she keeps employed. So absolutely, that’s what it’s about. But I would be pretty good with passing it on.
What’s behind your mixed feelings about Madea? Is it as simple as being uncomfortable in the costume?
The costume is so difficult to wear. It’s so tight. I’m sweating, it’s hot, with the wig — it’s all just a pain. Everybody on staff on the crew knows that once I get into costume, they’ve got to be hustling, moving lights, because I don’t want to have it on — I’m ready to take it off. And Joe is worse! Joe is like being wrapped like a mummy all around your face.
That’s right. At least Joe doesn’t usually move around much, he seems to mostly just sit in his easy chair.
That’s why! I’m like, listen — I’m not about to sweat this stuff off and have them put it back on for another 6-8 hours a day. I’m not doing that!
Do you have a shelf life in mind for Madea, or do you think you’ll draw a line at playing her after a certain point?
Well, you know what, it really is about the audience. As long as they want to see it I think it would be unfair for me to do anything but deliver. But whenever they stop coming, then Madea will retire to an island.
You’ve received criticism over the years for the Madea films in particular. What is your response to those who accuse these works of perpetuating certain stereotypes?
You know what, I’ve stopped trying to defend that stuff. I don’t even deal with it anymore. I like to let the audience speak for themselves. We all know what we like, we all know what we like and how we like it and what we want to see, and I think that it’s awful that we as black people – and this is where most of the criticism comes from, it comes from within our own culture — that we are so ashamed about certain parts of our society, about our own culture, that we want to act like it doesn’t exist. But this woman exists. I still know her. She is still in my neighborhood. She was my mother and my aunt. She didn’t go to an Ivy League school, and she took care of the whole family. So it’s not a stereotype, it is a part of our culture that we all need to embrace.
I do have a critic friend who watched the film and took issue with Madea’s violent streak — her tendency to threaten corporal punishment to those who don’t act reasonable in her eyes.
That says more about your friend than it does about the character. That’s what I think.
I’d like to discuss what we might call Madea’s history lessons in this film — there is a scene in which Doris Roberts struggles with the difference between using the term “Negro” instead of “Negro spirituals.” The other characters, who are white, are horrified by this, but then Madea comes in and tells them they’re all being too uptight about it, before firmly but gently correcting her. Are you by proxy telling your audience that maybe we’re too uptight when it comes to discussing these sensitive racial and historical issues?
[Laughs] Let me tell you something, you are so deep into this movie, you are reading things that I never even thought about or imagined. Because in that scene, what I’m thinking is, this woman has dementia. She’s trying to say “Negro spirituals” but she keeps saying “Negroes.” I’m thinking it’s a hysterical joke because I laughed my ass off when I wrote it, and I laughed my ass off when she did it, and when Madea corrects her — because everybody’s panicked that she’s saying “Negroes” and they don’t understand that she’s trying to say “Negro spirituals” — it’s like, calm down, get an understanding of what she’s saying before everybody jumps off the handle.
I feel like that taps into a larger discussion of your films, even, and the idea that you’re working within a very specific niche. But looking to what you have coming up next, you’re starring in Alex Cross, an action thriller adapted from James Patterson’s novel. Did you see this as an opportunity to cross over from your established niche into a wider mainstream audience?
No, I never do things to think about crossing over. The thing that appealed to me was that I always liked James Patterson’s books and I liked the franchise and the character itself. When it came to me out of all of the things that I’m offered — I’m offered quite a bit — that was the most intriguing. I thought, “Wow – this is a character that I like,” and I wanted to do it. That’s what that’s about.
Madea's Witness Protection is in theaters Friday.