Tyler Perry has always presented a bit of a problem for me. From a spiritual standpoint, I appreciate the sincerity and humor with which he presents the healing message of the gospel. But as a critic, I've had to admit that Perry's product is sub-par.
Once the laughter dies down, he draws his characters and his plots too thinly. The cheating husbands, scheming mothers, and sassy yet sage grandmothers who populate his stories would look more at home in a soap opera.
Fortunately, while these weaknesses persist to some degree in his latest release, Meet the Browns (rated PG-13 for drug content and language), Perry has gone a long way toward addressing them. Part of the progress is due to Angela Bassett as Brenda Brown, a struggling single mom trying to raise her children in Chicago's projects. Despite dialogue that is overly simplistic, Bassett brings her characteristic mix of dignity and vulnerability to the role. Her determination to keep her son Michael (Lance Gross) from pursuing the easy money of the drug trade is particularly vivid.
But not all the credit goes to Bassett. Unlike Diary of a Mad Black Woman or Madea's Family Reunion, in Browns Perry doesn't give us a blemish-free heroine. At several points throughout the story different characters confront the fact that Brenda's three children were sired by three different men. Their varying responses challenge viewers with a very Christ-like question: Do Brenda's irresponsible decisions make her unworthy of grace, charity, and salvation? For Perry the answer is no, and all three of these blessings reach Brenda and her family through the Browns-the Georgia-based relatives she never knew she had.
Though Browns contains less proselytizing than Perry's previous productions, it is better off for it. Rather than a speech telling the audience (particularly the young black men and women in the audience) how they should live, he uses characters' lives to show them. At the same time his thoughtful depiction of a mother on the brink of ruin deflates the presumptions and prejudices of an audience he may never have had in mind-financially secure white adults who, when confronted with the poverty of the inner city, too often respond by throwing stones rather than extending hands.