The gonzo soap opera Diary of a Mad Black Woman is a bad movie so over-the-top that at moments it’s almost good — or, at least, more arresting than it has any right to be. At the beginning, Helen (Kimberly Elise), who is sprightly and angel-faced and has been married for 18 years, gets kicked out of her home in the Atlanta suburbs. To state that basic fact doesn’t begin to describe the deranged spectacle of the event. The house is no mere house: It’s a stone mansion bigger than Wayne Manor or Gosford Park. That house is the film’s way of saying, This is not your father’s movin’-on-up assimilation daydream. You’d imagine the lord of the manor might be some sort of multinational CEO, but no: Charles McCarter (Steve Harris), Helen’s husband, is merely an attorney, albeit a very prominent one. He is also a rat bastard, a heartless and conniving philanderer who has two children with his mistress (Lisa Marcos). After informing Helen that their marriage is over, he hits the point home by literally dragging her out the door, as the (notably light-skinned) bitch-mistress looks on. At least one thing is wrong with this picture: If Charles is supposed to be such a poshly pretentious, imperiously self-interested customer, it seems highly unlikely that he’d go out of his way to make a scene in which he behaves like a low-dog pimp. Yet that’s all part of the shameless trash-fantasy broadness that gives Diary of a Mad Black Woman its crudely rousing tent-show juice. The film, directed by music-video vet Darren Grant, was written by Tyler Perry, a playwright and burlesque character actor who’s developed a major following on stage (he plays three roles in the film), and he pumps his clichés so full of hot air that they stay aloft even as you’re laughing at their brazenness.
Tossed out on her own, without a penny of Charles’ fortune (she had signed a prenup), Helen is like the heroine of An Unmarried Woman abandoned into a world of pulp retribution and princess romance. Charles, you’d better believe, gets exactly what’s coming to him, but Helen also meets a too-good-to-be-true suitor, a steel-factory worker named Orlando (Shemar Moore) who, with his cornrows and soft manner, is like a hip-hop Ken doll. (He actually says, ”I want to be your knight in shining armor.”) Kimberly Elise, who has been featured in such films as The Manchurian Candidate and Beloved and was the star of Woman Thou Art Loosed (which was earlier a play by Perry), has a face that’s all sexy, winsome curlicues. She’s as beautiful as Michelle Pfeiffer, and she’s got range: She can glow adoringly one moment and rage, with a dash of hellfire, the next. Aiding Helen at every turn is Madea, her rascally, big-bottomed, gun-totin’ ancient giantess of a grandma — played, by Perry himself, in a drag act that would look even more outrageous if Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence hadn’t gotten there first.
Madea, who is Perry’s most popular stage character, schools Helen in the art of payback, as in the scene where they rip up the mistress’ clothes. ”This is for every black woman who ever had a problem with a black man!” whoops Madea, and she might be speaking for the entire film, which is presented as a kind of passion play for black women. Helen, the saintly housewife scorned, never transcends being an archetype, yet she’s offered up as a soulful super-martyr for every sister in the audience to project onto. She’s a walking one-woman Waiting to Exhale, and Diary could end up rousing its audience in a similar way.
One of the most insidious lies in Hollywood is that its decision makers don’t care about black or white — that the only color that matters to them is green. This has always been a fashionably cynical way of explaining why there aren’t more black films, yet what it does, in effect, is to blame African-American audiences for the racial blinders of the film industry. Where were all the black chick flicks that were supposed to follow the success of Waiting to Exhale? (There was How Stella Got Her Groove Back and then…not much.) If Hollywood were doing its job, there’d be no need for — or defense of — a movie as outsize in its melodrama as Diary of a Mad Black Woman, yet it’s Tyler Perry’s belief that he isn’t just telling a story, he’s telling the story, that kept me watching. The climactic gospel number, ”I Want to Be Free,” seems to let loose all the pent-up emotion of the characters’ trials and dreams. Diary is a crock, all right, but a crock made with conviction.