11 February 2011

Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself

I'm generally interested in Tyler Perry as a phenomenon. I'm not really in the mood to rehash all that controversy and debate, so if you're not hip to it, dear reader, get on the google and InvestiHate. Or check this, this and maybe also this out for a general idea. [Edit: This is an especially good one, thanks to Max for helping me track it down] What it comes down to is, Tyler Perry creates massively popular movies about black life. He provides work for a lot of black actresses who should be getting more work. He writes movies that are striving to "better" people. But his idea of what that bettering involves is pretty controversial, and arguably pretty sexist. That he gives black actresses work is great, but that these talented women have to struggle to convincingly deliver his cliche, self-help psycho-babble lines is less great. That these movies are, often as not, formulaic, melodramatic, schlocky garbage is almost the icing on the cake. So, now that you're up to speed somewhat, and we can move on to: I Can Do Bad All By Myself.

Fascinating, in that it basically makes all this controversy completely visible. It is a schlocky, formulaic movie with plenty of stock, one-dimensional characters. It is incredibly problematic in the way it basically seems to demand utter self-abasement from its female protagonist as a path to virtue, not to mention surrendering agency rather than claiming it. The underlying sub-text about morality and vice is, as a friend of mine put it, pro-ble-ma-tic!!!

But I was also totally sucked in and emotionally engaged (sometimes you just wanna watch a trashy movie, of course). I used to get angry at movies that blatantly pushed my emotional buttons, and this one totally did, but what can I say, it worked. And I think the reason why, and what makes this movie actually worth watching in general, and not just when you're feeling like an evening on the couch with kleenex, is the music. The music is un-believable. Oh my GOD. Mary J Blige, Gladys Knight, and Marvin Winnans are amazing. I think I actually stopped breathing while Mary J Blige was singing. You can find the clip on youtube, but it's not the same. The musical numbers in this movie are like those in any musical - they derive depth from being placed in the context of the story*. Simultaneously, however, they also carry a lot of the emotional - and moral - weight of the film. Rather than preaching at our fallen protagonist, Gladys Knight sings to her, and it's so much more persuasive than anything else could be. In that sense, it's kind of a meta-reflection of what the film as a whole is trying to do, modeling the art of conversion via media. But really, it's just good cinema, too, in those moments at least.

It's a deeply problematic, and kind of crappy movie. There are a lot of things to dislike Tyler Perry for. But what this movie has going for it is not just one hell of a soundtrack, but an amazing collection of musical performances, and that raises it a cut above.

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