Tyler Perry's 'I Can Do Bad All By Myself': feeling the spirit

Tyler Perry knows he doesn’t need the often mystified reviews of predominantly white critics to sell his movies to his predominantly black audience. That’s why I Can Do Bad All By Myself was released, as Perry’s movies usually are, without a press preview. I bought a ticket for the show in my neighborhood last Friday, and I wasn’t the only one: I Can Do Bad fulfilled industry expectations, coming in first at the box office with some $24 million in revenue. My own expectations were surpassed, though, when I found myself weeping during scenes of worship at the church that plays such an important part in the story. As fictional Pastor Brian, real-life minister and gospel star Marvin Winans preached messages of strength, support, and praise while a choir raised the roof. And if that wasn’t enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, Gladys Knight, resplendent in pink suit and grand black church hat, joined Winans in a duet.

I’ve been thinking of my intense, unfiltered reaction to the movie–particularly its warm, inclusive, unself-conscious spiritual component, as accessible to this white Jewish critic as to the black Christian women sitting beside me in the movie theater. I’ve been thinking of Tyler Perry’s church scenes because—well, because as pollsters often remind us, we Americans like to think of ourselves as a religious nation. Yet we almost never see religion taken seriously and without jokiness in a mainstream movie aimed at a white audience. We certainly almost never see the unique, specific, authentic ritual that distinguishes one sect from another, something beyond a non-denominational minister waiting for a bride to walk down the aisle. (I’m still reeling from the who knew? authenticity and profound attention to detail Joel and Ethan Coen bring to their depiction of 1960s suburban Hebrew school in their new movie A Serious Man–more about that another time.)

I don’t want to bait politicians or partisan media pundits or anyone who brandishes faith like a mallet in service to a political agenda but I do want to ask you: Do you agree with me that white-oriented, mainstream American movies are generally squeamish, sugary, bland, embarrassed, apologetic, or ironic when it comes to depicting modern religious observance?

Or am I wrong? Are there a whole bunch of titles I can’t think of?

Comments (102 total) Add your comment
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  • danielle

    keeping the faith dealt with religion and though it was maybe a little jokey and lighthearted it did delve into some interesting questions on the evolution of religion and familial expectations to maintain traditions.

    ALSO, less mainstream but still amazing was the believer (ryan gosslings first movie). very in depth discussions of judiasm

    • Marcus

      Your points are taken, Danielle, but I think what Lisa is asking for are examples of movies that aren’t “about” religion, but still treat it with dignity and honesty.

  • cj

    Lisa ~ I haven’t seen the movie, but I agree with you. I tire of The Church (or religion) played for jokes or too extreme in film. The scenes NEVER look like the churches I attend – and I am a member of a non-denominational, multicultural church. And I was just tiring of Perry’s tried & true “fomula” that I can catch on any given Lifetime movie. I think I’ll see this one. Your reaction is refreshing…..

  • Jennifer

    I agree with you. Rarely is the seriousness with which most religious people treat their beliefs portrayed that way in the media/movies/TV/etc. Honestly I think it is because it is more entertaining to look at the fringe/extreme aspects of our religions/believers/leaders/ etc. It is why I, a Christian, thoroughly enjoyed movies like Saved.

  • Marcus

    I don’t know about the movies, but Friday Night Lights offers up (mostly) seamless, non-ironic church attendance and religious rituals.

    • Kim from Texas

      Are you kidding? In the first season, one person seen in church on Friday night lights was cheating on his wife. Another person seen in church used money from the offering plate to finance steroids. Another person seen in church was a crazy person that stopped taking their bi-polar medication. If someone is seen in church on Friday Night Lights, you can be sure that they are hypocrites and/or crazy.

  • Kim from Texas

    I completely agree. Hollywood is openly hostile to people of faith, and do not reflect the values of middle America . An independent movie that also reflects traditional values is “Fireproof.”

    • Shane

      The question is not “are there movies that reflect traditional values”. Fireproof was made by Christians, for Christians, so it isn’t germane to the topic at hand.

      • Kim from Texas

        And Tyler Perry is not a Christian making movies for other Christians? I have always thought it was interesting that Tyler Perry built his studio in Middle America (Atlanta) and not California/LA or New York.

      • Jennifer

        Atlanta is not middle America.

      • Kathryn

        Kim – I believe Shane is saying that the question here does not involve traditional values. The question concerns the treatment of faith and religion in mainstream movies – for example, are people who are religious to be laughed at, or respected? In many movies, the answer seems to be “laughed at”. There are rarely meaningful portrayals of religion. (I don’t typically think of “traditional values” and “religion” as the same thing.)

    • msvicki

      His movies are not about sex, all violence. When you have a movies about that has religion in there, people are more critical

      • msjones

        I agree with what msvicki has spoke on that Tyler Perry’s movies are not about sex,violence. And his movies aren’t about demonic themes like the vampire’s or multiple personalities which sick minded movies. I also agree with Ronnie’s comment. When I saw Tyler Perry’s movie, I came away with feeling the spirit & power of the Holy Ghost. There was a great joy in seeing the church part of the movie. I pray to the Lord Jesus Christ for those who have a negative view of Tyler Perry’s movie.

  • Shane

    Weird example but … there’s a throwaway line in Drive Me Crazy (teen rom com circa early ’00s) about a football player who is a practicing Lutheran. And … that’s all I’ve got.

  • Ronnie

    When films depict scenes in black churches, esp. in comedy, there is still an element of respect to the religion. Even in something like the church scene in the Blues Brothers that was played for broad laughs, there was still the element of capturing the joyous spirit of it all. Most films with a religious theme directed at a white audience usually reflects a darker side, such as The Apostle or Leap of Faith or Doubt, but when it comes to dealing with the church and the black audience, they don’t head in that direction usually.

    • Kim from Texas

      Maybe something like “August Rush” or “The Preacher’s Wife”.

    • Kim from Texas

      For a really old one, they sang “Jesus Loves Me” in the movie “The Bodyguard” (Whitney Houston) which was done in a serious/non-joking manner.

  • Anne

    I have attended Christian churches for most of my life — the first 20 years because it was expected of me, the second 20 years because I wanted to. I have NEVER seen what I felt to be an accurate representation of my church experiences (different denominations and all) in entertainment. It’s a shame, because church (not just the broader term “sprirtuality”) is a major activity in this country.

    I dislike the sappy, vapid “God is Santa in the Sky” portrayals as much as I do the “aren’t-these-Christians-stupid” versions.

    My ministers have always been intelligent and thoughtful. Stereotypical “holy-rollers” are seen for what they are and tolerated, though not encouraged.

    American Christianity encompasses SO MANY different worldviews and behaviors from which we could derive great entertainment or enlightenment if portrayed accurately in media. Never have understood why that’s so hard.

  • Donna

    In sleepers, I thought the relationship the boys had with the church,the neighborhood priest and his role as a mentor was done with respect.

  • Hollywood, where are the churches and ministers?

    Thanks for this question and topic Lisa. Short answer to the “Do you agree with me…” question in the penultimate graf: YES. Absolutely.
    Elaborating: The utter lack of any kind of spiritual life in the depiction of mainstream movie and TV characters is one of the chief reasons (not the only one) I can no longer identify with much on the big or small screen. I watch Susan Sarandon’s dying mother in “Stepmom” try to comfort her son with some secular babble about “always being with him,” and wonder why this middle-class, suburban, conscientious woman would not be praying, or asking her minister, rabbi or other spiritual leader for guidance, or taking the boy to church or synagogue as a way of coping with the impending loss. It’s called turning to God. Millions of people do this.
    I watched “Chances Are” (1989) the other night and Ryan O’Neal’s character, asked whether he believes in reincarnation, says “The last person I know of to come back was Jesus Christ.” It was so unusual to hear someone say those words in a scripted conversation I was nearly shocked. And Ryan O’Neal’s character was not a nut, except for having a longstanding unrequited love for his best friend’s wife. I didn’t know people who believed in Christ were allowed to be portrayed that way on the screen.
    “Two Can Play That Game” has a funny church scene with Vivica A. Fox in it, but it’s not about spirituality so much as church being a part of social life.
    Then there was 1997’s “The Apostle” in which much was made of Robert Duvall’s portrayal of an evangelical preacher who had committed a heat-of-passion murder. But that’s more than 10 years old, and I really never understood why it was necessary to have the violence except as a (very obvious) dramatic device. It seems as though all devoutly religious people are required, onscreen, to have a screw or something else loose.
    One of my favorite films that deals with religion is “Mass Appeal” (1984) with Jack Lemmon and Zeljko Ivanek, but its main theme is the hypocrisy of modern religion. It is kind of balanced, but not a fully positive view of the real joy and comfort that spiritual practices bring to millions of Americans.
    I don’t get it at all.

  • Hollywood, where are the churches and ministers?

    And Kim in Texas, Atlanta is the SOUTH. Not Middle America. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Middle America.)

    • Kim from Texas

      How do you define “Middle America”? I don’t consider it to be the same as the midwest. Middle America is more an indication that these states are not part of the liberal establishment of the coasts (Los Angeles and New York City).

      • Kathryn

        I take “Middle America” to mean “not where the rich and famous live”…so in that sense, I agree that Atlanta is more or less Middle America. Hollywood and New York are typical rich-and-famous locales. Liberal vs. conservative doesn’t enter into it.

  • Aaron

    The only example I can think of is Junebug and that beautiful scene with the hymn at the potluck which certainly got a reaction out of me. I’m a lifelong churchgoer and while I’ve seen satire that can capture aspects of the church, I very rarely see accurate representations of church life (or, as you point out, white church life.) King of the Hill and Friday Night Lights have had scenes that go a great job, but as far as film goes, Junebug’s the only one that sticks with me.

  • Brendan

    I think it’s kind of hard to do with white-oriented movies because the churches most white people attend are way, way, WAY more boring than their black counterparts Perry displays in his films. I’m being dead serious when I say this too…

    • Lisa Schwarzbaum

      Brendan, I think you’re on to something here. Maybe we need a rousing movie scene set in a white church in which Susan Boyle bursts into song?

      • Kim from Texas

        If you want excitement for a white church, I recommend Saddleback church in your area.

    • trepithet

      That’s what I was thinking too. I was raised Catholic, which definitely involves more droning, unison recitations of prayers than testifying. I know I’d be bored seeing that in a movie.

    • t3hdow

      I’m not sure about that one; at least with the Texas church that was shown in Borat. Members were dancing around and running through the pews like they just got called down to play The Price is Right. I don’t think I can attend that church without laughing. XD

  • DE

    Lisa, you are right. There are rare exceptions–“Tender Mercies” is one I can think of. And while Christ figures abound in films, white people never go to church in movies unless they’er serial killers or in need of a funny scene. Clergy in films are sex fiends, murderers, crooks, etc. Hollywood is fine with African-Americans and other ethnic groups attending church. But white people? Not really. Only in historical films or weddings or funerals will white people go to church in the movies.

  • TL

    As a Catholic, I cringe at how our iconography is often used for sinister effect, and how the clergy is either: a) Naively devout; b) Pedophiles; c) Corrupt. I suppose filmmakers and studios think it’s “brave” to exploit the problems plaguing this particular institution, and make it seem like we’re all mindless sheep being led to some spiritually bankrupt destination. It’s so ignorant and facile.

    • sandy

      I am Catholic too and I too don’t like the way we’re portrayed either. That’s why I hated the divinci code or angels and demons.

      • TL

        I know. How many time have we seen dour, gaunt-faced, corrupt Catholic clergymen in these types of films? Look, the Church as an institution has plenty of things it needs to change, but the majority of Catholics are good, charitable people (and far from prudish, I might add).

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