Dear 'Diary': Black women are mad about you
If you're a follower of movie demographics, you might already know that after three weeks, including one at the top of the box office charts, ''Diary of a Mad Black Woman" is the number one movie in the hearts of many African-American women.
I know this because my in-box is full of mail from them.
They've written from all over the country, wanting to express their annoyance that I didn't like the movie nearly as much as they did. Some were angry, appalled, or apoplectic. A few were all three.
Monique Cooks was succinct: ''I'm a mad black woman and I'm mad at you!" Another, Ebuni Mosley, took pity on me for not allowing myself to feel the power of the movie's message, insisting that I needed to let Jesus into my life the way Helen, the film's protagonist, did. (Dear Ebuni: If a fervent belief in God will get Shemar Moore, the movie's hunk, to put up with my sobbing and mood swings, save room in the pew for me.)
''Diary" is the story of Helen (Kimberly Elise), a loving wife whose husband casts her from their big Atlanta home for another woman. Helen learns, for the first time, to stand on her own two feet, with the help of Jesus, and, especially, her less-than-devout grannylike pal Madea, played in drag by the movie's author, Tyler Perry.
The whole thing is a mess, and, in a review that ran in these pages last month, I said so. Ever since, e-mails defending Perry's movie have poured in with an intensity rivaling the response other movie critics say they got for their ''The Passion of Christ" reviews.
Critics across the country have been getting similarly peeved notes from ''Diary" fans, many of which go on to accuse the movie's detractors of racism. On March 2, in response to his ''Diary" letters, Roger Ebert wrote a heartfelt piece in the Chicago Sun-Times, citing me as an example of a black critic who didn't like the movie. (Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post, who wrote a typically pointed review, is another.)
Ebert's accusers claim he was ill-equipped, as a white man, to appreciate a movie about strong black women. (Never mind he's spent his career as a champion of black films.) As for me, I grew up in a family of strong black women, and it's because I love black women that I can't like this diary of a mad black one. They deserve better.
One of the lessons we can all take away from this mini-fracas is that black America is not the cultural monolith we tend to think it is. The conversation has to include black people who have no use for ''Diary." Hating ''Soul Plane" or any of the dozens of black-aimed movies isn't a matter of not supporting black America. It's resisting a lowest-common-denominator style of moviemaking.
One letter I got, from Jennifer Alexander of St. Louis, wanted to know my ethnicity, because, she wrote, a black person would instinctively know certain aspects of ''Diary" to be true. People who wrote me similar notes were heartened to hear that I just didn't have the same experience growing up as they did.
These exchanges might sound trivial or self-evident, but rarely is black America engaged in a meaningful public dialogue about its own diversity and its many internal differences.
Something else we can learn from the ''Diary" phenomenon is that things in Hollywood look bleak for black women. According to a 2003 census from the Screen Actors Guild, African-American males accounted for 64 more starring roles in films than in the previous year while African-American women won only 14 more. That's something to worry about, and I think the droves that turned out for ''Diary" sense this. It's the only way to explain the heated response to its detractors. Fans made the movie number one, and they're proud.
Three years ago, when Halle Berry became the first black woman to win an Academy Award for best actress, she accepted her statue with a vow that doors would open for black women in Hollywood. Since then, Berry has since picked the door to ''Gothika," then the one to ''Catwoman," which is sort of a milestone: She can front a mediocre movie as well as any white star.
Despite Berry's promise of advancement, a lot of other great actresses -- Regina King, Kerry Washington, Aunjanue Ellis, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Gabrielle Union, Paula Jai Parker, Viola Davis, I could go on -- are languishing on the sidelines. Meanwhile, too many shiny parts go to Beyoncé, something that's both inexplicable and understandable.
White men run Hollywood, and when they see industrial fans blowing Beyoncé's hair extensions while she wags her hips and emits her police-siren vocals, a cash register drawer pops open. She doesn't seem capable of acting her way into a paper bag, but it's easy to cast her and her clones (hi, Christina Milian and Ashanti) because their ubiquity on BET and MTV make them preapproved for movie audiences. Meanwhile: Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard, where are you?
Right now is a good time to be an African-American man in the movie industry. Brand-new Oscar winner Jamie Foxx is the toast of Hollywood. Having played God in a movie, Morgan Freeman, also a recent Oscar winner, is widely thought to be God. Will Smith's ''Hitch" is the biggest movie of the year so far, and, I'm ashamed to say, Ice Cube's ''Are We There Yet?" is right behind it. ''Diary" writer Perry's star is on the rise. Samuel L. Jackson quietly scored a hit in late January with ''Coach Carter," while F. Gary Gray and Darren Grant, the respective directors of ''Be Cool" and ''Diary," are black men. So are the directors of the upcoming ''Beauty Shop," ''Guess Who," and ''The Fantastic Four."
To get better, more complicated stories told about black women might require more black female writers and directors -- and if you think things are grim for black film actresses, try being a black woman director. The discrepancy between the endless number of African-American women draped over rappers and the paltry number saying ''that's a wrap" is staggering. That's enough to make anybody mad. But when will someone get mad enough not to take it anymore?
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.