Tyler Perry’s film Madea Goes to Jail hit theaters last February and had the highest box office debut for Lionsgate, grossing more than $90 million dollars in North America. It’s Perry’s most successful film to date, leaving critics like me to wonder: Why the hell are Black audiences (and, I’d add, Christian, heterosexual, Black audiences) so drawn to Madea?
Am I the only one who sees Madea and is reminded of the fierce Black drag queens from Woody’s, a local gay bar here in Toronto?
Rod McCullom, a television producer and writer (who’s also a gay, Black man), tells me that Perry’s plays and movies have all the makings of a Black gay aesthetic. “The pageantry of gospel music. The diva characters in each play or movie. The obscenely gorgeous and often shirtless muscle boys that populate each production. It’s from the same school of thought that has elevated Patti Labelle to iconic status among both straight and gay Blacks. She’s very campy. The Tyler Perry plays and movies are a new camp.”
That may be true. But while the drag queen may be a source of entertainment for some hetero Black audiences, in queer communities, drag is a serious performance art.
And Black men in drag is nothing new.
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, there were popular drag balls. Black gay poet Langston Hughes discussed the importance of Black drag in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea, examining the glamour, the sophistication and the polished performances in detail. Black drag queens were chronicled in Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning, which illustrated the brutal social realities of Black and Latino drag queens in New York City. Drag for the gay men of color in Livingston’s film was not entertainment—it was their way of responding to racism, poverty, sexism and homophobia. Drag was a way to make an income, and it was their form of survival.
By contrast, on television and film the history of Black male entertainers dressed in drag is just for laughs. In the 1960s and 1970s, Flip Wilson was the frivolous Geraldine. Fast-forward to the 1990s’ hit Fox shows In Living Color and Martin, both of which also had popular Black drag queens. Jamie Foxx played Wanda, the ugly woman. Martin Lawrence also put on a dress as the long-fingernailed, hair-weave-wearing stylist, Sheneneh Jenkins. Geraldine, Wanda and Sheneneh were comic fodder. And now we have Madea.
The more these actors bend gender roles for laughs, the more they reinforce notions of how men and women are supposed to behave—as heterosexuals. That’s part of Madea’s appeal.
“She’s a matriarch with shades of mammy, a caretaker whose loveable nature and quirky personality have been clowned up for coonic effect. She is not just a jokester; she is the joke,” says James Earl Hardy, author of A House Is Not A Home: A B-Boy Blues Novel.
Madea is the old and tired paradox of how Black women are represented in pop culture. She’s high-strung, outspoken and controversial, and she’s also a terrible stereotype of Black women: aggressive, hostile and petulant. And if all that weren’t bad enough, Madea preaches about acceptance and forgiveness to Black Christian audiences that so often disparage homosexuality.
But Black women are still drawn to the man in drag. Why?
Steven Emmanuel, known for his blog Queer Kid of Color, thinks that Perry is popular because Black women want films about Black love. It’s a demand that white Hollywood consistently ignores. Perry’s work, Emmanuel says, is filling a void. Even if it is with a man in women’s clothes.
The silent message in Perry’s work, though, is that homophobia and sexism are still acceptable, even as the Black community laughs at the hypocritical punch line.
Orville Lloyd Douglas is a writer living in Toronto.