Tyler Perry’s latest familial dramedy Madea’s Witness Protection was my first foray into Perry’s strange world of entertainment, where multiple personalities and southern cooking seem to run rampant and are easily accepted. Not typically drawn to every type of hype, especially when Perry started pumping out his now well marketed African American centric films in 2006 with Diary of A Mad Black Woman, I overlooked the slew of films that Perry would release in the years that followed, but rest assured, Witness Protection has provided me with everything I need to know about Perry’s wacky envisioning of the African American elderly woman.
Produced on a budget of 5.5$ million, Perry’s first feature film Diary was a sweeping success as it raked in $50.6 million in the domestic box office alone. More notably, Diary’s achievement as a low budgeted film capable of generating great profits caused Perry’s (who only wrote his first feature) narrative style to become the new acceptable model for African American familial comedy films in the 21st Century, apparently pleasing both studios and audiences alike. Unlike the steeper production budgets of $30 million plus that Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor (1996), its sequel Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, or Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma’s House (2000) and Big Momma’s House 2 (2006), the more modest production values of Perry’s films and their gargantuan gains have hands down been one of the most dangerous things to happen to Afro American centric filmmaking in recent times because their low cost ushers in a time where studios (be they Lionsgate, BET, or Tyler Perry studios) have found the cheapest way to market images and ideas of African American’s to themselves and the general public, and for all those reasons, even Witness Protection’s cheap laughs can’t redeem this film or Perry’s indolent message.
Witness Protection starts off with the Needleman family: wealthy, white, upper class Atlantians led by the goofy yet honorable George Needleman (Eugene Levy) and his younger counterpart Kate (Denise Richards). After being unknowingly implicated in a Ponzi scheme, Needleman finds himself at the mercy of the F.B.I. and is relocated to live with reoccurring Perry universe character Brian’s aunt Madea (both Brian and Madea are played by Perry). Witness Protection operates like clockwork and these and all of the other obstacles the Needleman’s face pretty obvious in about the first 15 minutes of the film. George can’t spend enough time with his kids because of his work, Kate misses their intimacy, their daughter Cindy (Danielle Campbell) needs some attitude adjustments and their son Howie (Devan Leos) needs some serious father son time.
While many other films could take some hints from Witness Protection’s forwardness, (Prometheus ahem), the film’s quick story line seems cheap and lazy. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t foolish enough to walk into this film thinking that it would be the Tree of Life of Afro American centric familial dramas, but it is very hard to ignore how unbecoming both Perry’s dialogue and attention to plot is. With straight faced dialogue that simply slides back and forth between characters, and staple introductory and establishing shots (Perry frequently shown sitting at his desk just in case we ever forget that he works for the District Attorney), it shocking that Witness Protection clocks in as the fourth of Perry’s films which was not adapted from a stage play. This is surprising because everything in this film, particularly its dead pan plot direction and visuals, seem like something that could only be adapted from a less cinematic source.
Perry has come under fire from many including self appointed African American culture aficionado Spike Lee for his ‘coon’ and ‘mammy’ character portrayals. Here Lee refers to centuries old African American stereotypes made popular on during the silent film era, and which are thought to have become relics of a time of oppression and false representation. However, Perry’s Witness Protection goes to show that these representations aren’t gone- but in fact have been re-appropriated in one of the most risky and subversive manners. Being fed to and supported by the demographic who continue to make Perry’s films a success, African Americans, Witness Protection silently reinvigorates and reinforces stereotypes under the guise of African American friendly comedy made by an African American.
Still, Witness Protection provides some simple but hardy laughs. Hearing Madea and her husband Joe (Tyler Perry) talk about Kate’s ‘yoda’ (yoga) or watching Madea’s Joe interact with the cute and snuggly Needleman Grandmother Barbra (Doris Roberts) who insists that they shacked up together during WWII, is indeed entertaining. But all this still couldn’t detract from the strong point that Perry seems to hope that audiences (Afro Centric or not) have forgotten about: Isn’t Murphy in Nutty Professor I and II dressed up as multiple African American characters who bring outsiders into their homes? Is Big Momma’s House not exclusively about Martin Lawrence dressing himself up like an old lady to protect a witness to a crime? Haven’t we seen this all before?
Well the biggest and difference between those films and Perry’s comedies is that Murphy and Lawrence are both comedians, and Perry is not. While The Nutty Professor and Big Momma’s House both arguably cater to African American audiences and feature men made up as old ladies and fat men alike- both of these films draw their humour from Murphy or Lawrence essentially playing themselves in a fat suit disguise. Perry’s Witness Protection however presents Madea not as a funny version of Perry-but a self contained character all in her own. Madea’s humour comes from the ridiculousness of her character- rather than the absurdity of Perry pretending to be here. Everything that Madea does is for money: she won’t let the Needleman’s stay at her house until she is payed, she even helps them commit a crime for a nice hotel suite. With this as Madea’s central source of motivation, an impossibly frustrating question looms over this entire film: are we watching Perry playing Madea or Perry acting the ‘Mammy’ ?