As David Poland correctly predicted just a week ago, Lionsgate has moved the newest Tyler Perry film, For Colored Girls, from its original January 14th, 2011 slot into the heart of the awards season. It will now open wide on November 5th, which is incidentally the same weekend that Precious (which Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey put their names on after the fact to insure a Lionsgate distribution) debuted in limited release, wracking up a record $108,000 per each of its eighteen screens. The film is a change of pace for Perry, as it is the first time that he is directing a film based on a prior source, the 1975 Ntozake Shange play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. The play itself is a collection of twenty poems dealing with various social issues (rape, abortion, etc) that are performed by seven women known only by a color ('Lady in Blue', etc). The cast is pretty huge, and includes a handful of Perry veterans (Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson, etc), along with Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, Loretta Devine, Phylicia Rashad, and Thandie Newton making their debut in the Tyler Perry sandbox. To be blunt, nothing would make me happier than seeing a Perry film as a possible Oscar contender.
He's the only mainstream filmmaker outside of Clint Eastwood who consistently makes adult dramas. I can't defend Madea Goes to Jail or Why Did I Get Married Too? (the last five minutes of that sequel contains the biggest 'shoot yourself in the foot' ending since Spanglish), but he has solid work on his filmography. I Can Do Bad All By Myself is a low-key and engaging musical drama, and Angela Basset and Lance Gross are stunningly good in Meet the Browns. All of his films, both good (The Family That Preys) and bad (Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which he did not direct) boast fine performances by underemployed actors of color. Viola Davis is terrific in Madea Goes to Jail, and Daddy's Little Girls contains the first leading theatrical role for Idris Elba, as well as a fine supporting performance from Louis Gossett Jr. And anyone who consistently casts Cicily Tyson gets a gold star just for that. There are any number of undervalued black actors who I'd love to see stretching their (melo)dramatic muscles in Atlanta (cough-Tony Todd-cough), and I'd love to see Eddie Murphy try dramatic acting again in an environment where he wasn't the biggest star on the set.
I contend that The Family That Preys, a dark and morally complicated family drama with great work from Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates, would have been a serious contender had Perry been a more respected name at that point and/or it hadn't been written off as a 'black film'. I'm not saying it's a masterpiece, but it's a damn good melodrama with several 'Oscar bait elements'. It's also better than several of the actual Oscar contenders from 2008 (The Reader, Revolutionary Road, etc). It's easily Perry's best, most complicated, and satisfying picture yet, so of course, it's his lowest-grossing film. All of his films certainly have problems (racial and class stereotypes, the need to swing for the fences in his comic work, making light of genuinely unpleasant behavior, etc), but he is growing as a filmmaker and his flawed stories are almost always ones worth telling and worth watching, especially as so few mainstream filmmakers are making old-fashioned melodramas. And for all the talk about his religious leanings, his films are firmly rooted in the Veggie Tales brand of Christianity, preaching compassion, forgiveness, and empathy over divisive social issues. We'll see if critics of the future hold Perry to the same esteem that we hold Douglas Sirk today.
If Tyler Perry the fine director of actors has truly made the most out of the opportunity to work with a writer who doesn't have Tyler Perry's flaws, than we may be in for a real treat on November 5th.