No Good Deeds

They say no good deed goes unpunished, so it was fitting that in my desire to support Tyler Perry and his new film “Good Deeds,” I was rewarded with a reminder of how true a turn of charity can turn into two-hours of movie watching grief.

I use the term “charity” because I want to be charitable in my support of Perry’s continuing growth as a filmmaker,but compounding this is how hard it has become to have a civil conversation about Perry’s work, as our community is so divided on the merit of his films. Like Ali versus Frazier – you either aligned yourself politically with Muhammad Ali’s militant stance or the (seemingly) conservative Joe Fraizer. With Perry – and in comparing Perry’s work to his predecessors – it turns into a debate of downtown versus uptown; country mouse versus city; bourgeoisie versus Boones Farm.

Ironically, Perry’s latest is about this same class divide. Only this time, instead of railing against snobby light-skinned women who dared to go to college, Perry’s character “Wesley Deeds” is part of the “1 percent” – a successful business man of inherited wealth learning the virtues of altruism via world’s most beautiful janitor – Thandie Newton.

Like Moses, Prince Edward, Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge McDuck, Jerry Maguire and the entire plot of  1938 Frank Capra film “You Cant Take It With You” before, “Deeds” follows in the tradition of the stock rich guy character who learns to care about poor, regular people through trial and tribulation. But in this case, instead of learning he’s actually the son of Jewish slaves or the wayward husband of a pre-lemon face Renee Zellweger, Perry’s “Deeds” is the dutiful son taking over his family’s company, dealing with a difficult matriarch – his cold mother portrayed by acting doyenne Phylicia Rashad; a demanding trophy wife in Gabrielle Union and the aforementioned down-on-her-luck single mom beauty, Newton.

Since “Good Deeds” is your classic fable, most of the film reads as cliché as one of those plays they put on in prison. There’s a good guy, a bad guy and some semblance of a happy ending. Anybody that is good is all good. Anybody that is bad is ALL bad. The characters and story line are fairly predictable, until something “shocking” happens – like a clown falls through roof and you’re shocked at the Dadaesque absurdity.

Technically Perry’s films rarely pass Film School 101. They are glossy and are chock full of pretty people and storylines that go down easy. But they aren’t complex. They’re wordy. There is a lot of tell and not enough show. Plot exposition is dumped unceremoniously into half-thought out emotional monologues that either hit hard in spite of the context if the actor is good or become laughable if a lesser performer finds themselves swallowed whole by the turgid, literary swamp that is Perry’s dialog.

In fact, the only person who tends to survive Perry’s prose unscathed is Perry himself in the drag of his sassy, robust matriarch Madea. The larger-than-life preachiness of his work fits the chitlun circuit, vaudeville, Aunt Easter throwback that is the comedic protector/punisher, Madea.

But Madea is absent in “Good Deeds” due to Perry’s effort to distance himself from the role that built his own little cinematic XanaduTyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.

In this turn away from slapstick and into the dramatic, Perry struggles. While he seems to want to be a jack-of-all-trades, a la diminutive funk master Prince, Perry suffers in that Prince is truly a master songwriter, guitarist and collector of all things purple.

Perry, lacking that eye and ear for perfection, seems to learn on the job and an attitude of “good enough” takes precedence over “get it right.”

That ethic towards the craft is further amplified in the acting.

A  true romantic lead (as Perry is trying to pull off), needs to have the sort of effortless charm or roguish look where you can believe that, in real life, they could very well steal Gabrielle Union from Dwayne Wade or Thandie Newton from director Ol Parker.

There’s a hint of rogue in George Clooney. When Idris Elba licks his lips, closes one eye and leans forward to talk to a woman, I usually offer my date popcorn or tap her on the shoulder for fear he might just take her from me. If Denzel, Richard Roundtree or even Jim Brown emerged fully-formed from the digital transfer, they could easily take your girl. Tyler Perry? Well, he’s tall, in shape, dresses well and is groomed well, and isn’t a bad looking brother —but he never seemed into his leading ladies. He even lacked chemistry with the motorcycle Deeds rides in the film.

Without the Madea persona he doesn’t evoke the same passion or energy. His eye contact in quiet moments reminded me of Pee Wee Herman whenever he’d fall off his bike in front of other kids.

If there was any stand-out, surviving Perry’s ham-fisted touch, it was Phylicia Rashad, who as the mother, was as cold as ice. Although she wasn’t fully utilized, Rashad convinced me she could easily pull off the part of Bond villain. Without words she was cold. Cruella de Ville cold. I’m thinking about using her character to get my kids to do right when they step out of line. If she had been in Ordinary People instead of Mary Tyler Moore she’d garner an Oscar. She brought class to a film seeking it.

While his merits as a filmmaker continue to be debatable, the one area where Perry remains unchallenged is in his ability to galvanize an audience that Hollywood, by and large, believes doesn’t exist.

Without a Harvard degree or NYU Film School, Perry has been able to create a media empire.  This, in spite of him lacking the prestige or artistry of the director who has become his staunchest critic, Spike Lee.

Lee, while never making anywhere near the receipts Perry has, produced work that launched several careers and sparked a renaissance period for Black Film in the eighties and nineties that has not been duplicated by Perry’s success. The two have greatly differed in what is needed in black film and television. But I’ve found that despite all our difference, there really is only one need – more.

When I look to television and movie screens you know what I don’t see? Black people. Tyler Perry and Spike Lee make films about the African American community and experience. The tones and content differ, but both capture a subset of larger African American culture. Perry’s imperfections aside, it shouldn’t be about Perry doing less, but us all doing more, allowing black writers, actors, directors and producers to gain a cinematic foothold on a much larger scale.

Even if we differ on the question of “what is art,” we can still unify around our singular right to create it.

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