Madea Meets the Ku Klux Klan

Nearly a century apart, Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas and D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation contrast a sassy black family with a racist masterpiece

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Lions Gate

From left to right: Tyler Perry ("Madea"), Alexis Jones ("Lucy"), Cassi Davis ("Aunt Bam"), Tony Grant ("Eric") and Jeffrey Lewis ("George") star in Lionsgate Home Entertainment's Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas.

Every week, we shine a light on a few big, worthy or just plain weird DVD releases.

A Madea Christmas

He built a multimedia empire by writing and directing homespun movies, plays and TV shows in which he frequently stars in drag as the sassy, preachy Mabel “Madea” Simmons. His low-budget films have grossed more than a half-billion dollars at the North American box office, and this year Forbes magazine anointed him the highest-paid man in show business, with earnings of $130 million. Yet outside his core constituency of older black women, Tyler Perry gets no respect. African-American commentators accuse him of demeaning his race, and most reviewers ignore or excoriate his movies. On the critics’ aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, three of Perry’s most popular pictures — Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion and Madea Goes to Jail — managed only a mediocre 68% rating. And that’s not the average score; it’s the sum total. As a butt of critics, Perry is down in the seventh circle of Hell: Rob Schneider territory.

 (MORE: Read Richard Corliss on Tyler Perry’s success)

Actually, Perry’s movies — calculated combustions of domestic melodrama and low comedy, Saturday-night insult humor culminating in a Sunday-morning sermon — don’t display his raw art in its purest form. For that you must watch the DVDs of the original theater pieces that Perry would present in his Atlanta headquarters and then take on tour in perhaps a dozen cities, and which he later adapted into his films. A 2007 box set, Tyler Perry: The Plays, collects seven of these productions, performed on stage for an appreciative audience that cheers Madea, boos the villainous characters and shouts “Amen!” after the musical numbers. (Unlike the movies, the plays usually give each of the major actors, except for Perry, a potent R&B-flavored song to belt out.)

Outsiders watching a Perry video are projected into another America: not just to the insular land of black popular theater, unlike anything on Broadway, but back in time to the chitlin’ circuit of the 1930s and ’40s, when segregated audiences got to see their own stars singing and joking about racial issues without having to worry whether the white man would get it. And Perry — outfitted as Madea in a garish housedress and fake saggy boobs — is a joyous anachronism too: trash-talking, truth-telling, 6ft.5in. Moms Mabley. The plays are spectacles worth attending, in person or vicariously, and newcomers to the Perry gospel can get a concentrated dose of the experience in the DVD of his latest play, A Madea Christmas, taped in May at Atlanta’s Cobb Performing Arts Center. The evening is broad, hectoring, defiantly sentimental and, for the uninitiated, a revelatory gas.

(MORE: Read Richard Zoglin on the Tyler Perry stage experience)

In the lavish, two-story set of a ritzy Cape Cod home, the members of the Mansell family — who can be identified without fear of stereotyping as mean mother Lilian (Chandra Currelley-Young), pompous father John (Maurice Lauchner), restless daughter China (Támar Davis) and virginal son Japan (Zuri Craig) — prepare for the holiday feast with the help of their saintly maid Margaret (Cheryl Pepsii Riley) and their ancient, mouthy chef Hattie (Patrice Lovely). Lilian, eager to impress China’s super-rich beau and presumed fiancé Bobby (Shannon Williams), has insisted that Margaret work on Christmas instead of celebrating with her family. So China secretly invites the whole disreputable brood: Madea, fat Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) and grown children Lucy (Alexis Jones), George (Jeffery Lewis) and Eric (Tony Grant). China had once been in love with Eric; his reappearance allows her to rethink her affair with Bobby. True to Perry form, this Christmas story will eventually spill lurid family secrets all over the stage.

Tales of class as much as race, Perry’s plays contrast a group of rich people aping the white life style with poor people who are black and proud. Eric reminds the Ivy League China that he went to a community college: “It ain’t Brown but it’s black.” Lilian believes that appearances are everything, and that her daughter can be fulfilled only if she marries into an even wealthier family. To Lilian, Madea’s family represents everything she has fought to escape. She calls them “the black Beverly Hillbillies” and insists they come in through the back door. “She wants to take us to the Colored Entrance,” says Madea, who proclaims that she’s both country and ghetto — “You put that together, you get contretto.” No respecter of propriety, Madea preaches being true to your roots. For her, that means honoring parents and speaking up to them, favoring salt-of-the-earth working-class blacks over the starched Buppies and, at the end of the play, praising Jesus in scripture and song.

(MORE: Find Tyler Perry in TIME’s 25 Most Important Films About Race)

A black-evangelical Don Rickles, Madea dishes out zingers to the Mansells and the elderly Hattie (“If you got any eggs, they either hard-boiled or scrambled”), while reciting her own hip-hop rendition of the Nativity. A nurturer as well as a noodge, she finally musters some sympathy for the rich folks, telling Lilian, “It’s really sad when you can buy whatever you want but you have to beg for what you need.” Containing a half-dozen original songs that allow the performers to showcase their sensational pipes, the show opens and closes with Christmas spirituals, reminding viewers that the holiday is still and always a holy day.

Those sentiments might not convert the godless, but A Madea Christmas is certainly religious in its energy and fervor. Even unbelievers might enjoy a gulp of this DVD along with their festive eggnog. Have some Madea, m’ dear.

The Birth of a Nation Deluxe 3-Disc Edition

Next week will see the U.S. premieres of two wonderful movies evoking the nearly forgotten art form of silent cinema. The Artist, set in Hollywood of the late 1920s, when Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckling epics dominated the screen, was made by a Frenchman, Michel Hazanavicius. Hugo, set in 1930 Paris and paying fond tribute to the turn-of-the-century fantasy films of Georges Méliès, was made by an American, Martin Scorsese. Both movies are testimonials by modern masters to the early creators — directors, actors and tinkering technicians — of the medium that inspired them. But no such honor will come to D.W. Griffith, who brilliantly synthesized the language of film and made the most widely seen movie in all of silent film, The Birth of a Nation. The man’s legacy is too controversial and tarnished to allow the erection of any cinematic statue. And yet the movie must be seen, both as a model of early-film storytelling and a warning against the poisonous power of bigotry on film. The Kino DVD, with a restoration newly mastered in high definition, is the place to begin study of this magnificent, monstrous monolith.

Released on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and called The Clansman in its Los Angeles premiere on Feb. 8, 1915, The Birth of a Nation became a groundbreaking popular, technical and critical success. In its bold editing and composition of shots, in its alternation of intimate scenes with spectacular battles and a final thrilling chase, the three-hour film established a cinematic textbook, a fully formed visual language, for generations of directors. The potent drama of its subject and method stirred President Woodrow Wilson to say, “It is like writing history with lightning; my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

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The son of a Colonel in the Army of the Confederacy, Griffith grew up hearing tales of noble Southerners fighting for their independence (and for the perpetuation of black slavery). Like many later films, from Buster Keaton’s The General to Gone With the Wind, which in 1940 replaced Griffith’s film as the movie industry’s top-grosser, Birth took the side of the South in its depiction of the Civil War. But Griffith’s film went further, lower. Based on a novel by the Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr., whom Russell Merritt’s superb making-of extra describes a “professional southerner and white supremacist,” Birth revels in the coarsest racial imagery: of crude Negroes in the Reconstruction Senate, and of a black man pursuing a white woman until, to save her virginity, she throws herself off a cliff.

The acclaim of Griffith’s masterwork made his virulent, derisive depiction of blacks all the more toxic — indeed, potentially epidemic. This was not simply a racist film; it was one whose brilliant storytelling technique lent plausibility and poignancy to the notion of blacks as stupid, venal and brutal. Viewers could believe that what they saw was true historically and emotionally. Birth not only taught moviegoers how to react to film narrative but what to think about blacks — and, in the climactic ride of hooded horsemen to avenge their honor, what to do to them. The movie stoked black riots in Northern cities, and by stirring bitter memories in the white South, it helped revive the dormant Ku Klux Klan, which for the next few decades went on a righteous spree of lynching black men. And in the opposition it provoked, the movie indirectly led to the birth of an independent African American cinema.

Stung by attacks on his film, Griffith made the four-part historical drama Intolerance, with its plea for universal brotherhood (not specifically including Americans of color), and, a few years later, Broken Blossoms, an early interracial love story (but involving a man who was Chinese, not black). The new Kino edition of Birth presents two restored versions, from 1993 and 2011, plus some fascinating artifacts from Birth‘s 1930 re-release, when Griffith prefaced a title card to the film’s second part, proclaiming that “This is an historical presentation of the Reconstruction Period following the Civil War, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today” — as if the blacks of the early Depression were a different species from those of the late 1860s.

In a filmed 1930 conversation with Walter Huston (then starring in Griffith’s first talking picture, Abraham Lincoln), the director argues that the Ku Klux Klan, riding like the cavalry to the rescue of the South from rapacious Negroes, “at that time was needed to serve the purpose.” However myopic that sounds today, Griffith wasn’t alone in his sentiments. He has Huston read a passage by Wilson, a historian before he was President, positing that the purpose of Reconstruction was “to put the white South under the heel of the black South,” under black officeholders “who knew none of the uses of authority except its insolences…. The white men were roused by an instinct of mere self-preservation, until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South to protect the Southern country.”

In a prologue to Birth, Griffith pleads for “the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue — the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word, that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.” That right would not be granted to movies until 1952, when the Supreme Court ruled that they were protected as free speech and, implicitly, as works of popular art. The Birth of a Nation was, in its artistry, cinematic Shakespeare, the medium’s Henry V, Othello and The Merchant of Venice; and as movie propaganda, the forerunner of both Saving Private Ryan and Jew Suss.

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