What Would Tyler Perry Do?: Compromised Christian Messages in Madea Goes to Jail

Curator's Note

Of the handful of specific cultural signifiers associated with Tyler Perry, his Christianity remains one of the most damning from an outside perspective. People looking for reasons to ignore the filmmaker can stop right there, as Christian preaching draws a line between religious and secular films that few are willing to cross.

But while Tyler Perry avers his Christianity publicly, his films frequently display far muddier views on the topic thanks to the decidedly secular presence of Madea and her role as Perry's cinematic avatar and marquee character. Madea provides Perry's films with their loudest voice, and it's a decidedly anti-church voice at that.

Take this clip from Madea Goes to Jail, for instance. Finding herself in a tough legal spot, Madea cynically uses religion as a means to avoiding jail time. Her enthusiasm lacks sincerity. In fact, it exaggerates the sincerity of religious exhalation into farce. Madea makes fun of Christianity.

This will become more apparent later in the film as Madea dismisses her daughter Cora's “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet as useless. When a rude man cuts them off in traffic, Cora speaks with the offending driver as Jesus would only to earn a sharp “Go to Hell,” to which Madea mockingly responds: “Did you show him your bracelet, Cora?” Then, seemingly just to pour salt on Jesus' wounds, Madea forces Cora to rear-end the driver, crashing him into and destroying a church announcement sign.

This scene would play the same had it been written by Bill Maher. Tyler Perry's films frequently display a lack of message awareness, but regarding Madea Goes to Jail's Christian bona fides, this ignorance is quite pronounced. Tyler Perry would likely respond that, being a character, Madea does not represent his personal views, but as the preeminent figure of authority in Perry's cinematic universe, Madea's opinions remain paramount to those of other characters and therefore represent the most narratively justified views Perry offers. Tyler Perry may tell us one thing, but through Madea, he frequently shows us something else.



It is important to think about patterns of contradictions found in Perry's films and your post does just that. Of course, there are moments (in other films) where Madea is apart of less humorous "come-to-Jesus" moments where she is offering careful instruction on how God can help some character fix their lives. I wonder if the object of mockery here is Christianity at large, or a specific brand of old-school religiosity. Also, how do you think this conversation might be expanded to include the moments when Perry breaks the fourth wall during his stage plays and speaks about God from a Tyler Perry mindset, but with a Madea voice and dress.

I feel Tyler Perry finds success as a spiritual leader largely because his films offer viewers a kind of supplemental church which confronts real issues while simultaneously entertaining in a fashion church rarely achieves. He does not preach so much as illustrate. This speaks to your notion that he may be poking fun at "old school religiosity," specifically in regards to Madea who won't go to church and instead preaches secular common sense. When Perry breaks the fourth wall in his plays, he breaks character as well, and I don't see much challenge separating the man speaking from the costume he wears. And in these moments I do believe his sincerity (or the kind of religious sincerity found in politicians anyway). The problem with Tyler Perry is that his speedy writing style -- combined with a displayed inability to identify and eliminate aspects of his id that seep into all his works -- brings forth many moments of contradiction which make plain a struggle between Tyler Perry's message and true feelings. In the films, I can think of no moments where Madea offers "careful instruction on how God can help some character fix their lives." She does so in I Can Do Bad All by Myself but only with reluctance and insincerity. She frequently refers to the bible's insufficiencies and mutates Christian scripture to fit her own prescriptions. Her less humorous moments involve rape and domestic abuse and forgiveness, not spirituality. The one intersection between Madea and Tyler Perry's Christian messages lay in personal responsibility. Even at his most spiritual, God performs no miracles in Tyler Perry's universe; people have to help themselves. Church scenes guide characters via secular messages (forgiveness, perseverance through hardship, etc.), rather than specific biblical direction.

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