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I miss the days when Tyler Perry tried to be a good filmmaker, fueled by a desire to break into the mainstream with award-winning dramas about the most horrific types of abuse. There was an upward trajectory there for a while, and with each new film, you wondered if he’d finally make one that could pull it off.
His biggest swing was of course his adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. When literary prestige failed him, he tried the Forrest Gump route with Good Deeds. That failed to crossover as well, and he more or less gave up, choosing instead to double down on the audience he had rather than court an audience he wanted.
But if you look closely, Tyler Perry’s talent as a filmmaker peaked a year before For Colored Girls with I Can Do Bad All By Myself. Relative to the rest of his output, it’s not a crazy film (that honor is best bestowed upon Diary of a Mad Black Woman or Why Did I Get Married Too), and objectively speaking, it’s not even his best (probably The Family that Preys), though it is very good. Instead, I Can Do Bad By Myself offers the ultimate distillation Perry’s filmography in one surprisingly well-made package. It is the most complete, most Tyler Perry movie he’ll ever make.
I Can Do Bad All By Myself tells the story of a selfish, alcoholic lounge singer who sleeps around with married men and basically does whatever the fuck she wants. One day her mother dies and she finds herself responsible for a niece and two nephews her life has no room for. Little by little (look, this isn’t going to shock you), she finds she needs them just as much as they need her. She also gets married to a super hunk and tries to electrocute a dude in a bathtub (okay, that might shock you).
The problems that plague all Tyler Perry films still exist here. The drama is laughably hyperbolic, characters are offensive, logic is often ignored, and Perry’s didactic message is both simplistic and confused. There’s never going to be a film where Tyler Perry suddenly figures out how humans work.
But within the weird universe of Tyler Perry, there are so many great things going on here. For one thing, this is the only Tyler Perry film to adhere to the traditions established in his stage shows, arguably the purest form of Tyler Perry’s artistic expression. Those productions are musicals, and with all its church scenes and lounge act numbers, I Can Do Bad is a musical as well. The plays often feature cheesy video flashback footage (or they used to, anyway). I Can Do Bad has those as well. Madea usually just hangs out in the plays, giving endless speeches. That’s mostly what she does here.
Perry shows great restraint with Madea in this one. This was before she started actually starring in her own films, but it was far enough along that her near-cameo is somewhat surprising. She has an organic entrance to the film - catching these loose brats breaking into her house and delivering them to their aunt - and offers one character rare emotional support later. Perry doesn’t feel pressure to overuse her and as a result ends up stumbling on a perfect balance of character and functionality.
Tyler Perry is funny as Madea but not at all skilled as a joke writer, which means her endless ramblings and threats are pretty hit and miss. I found the first A Madea Halloween funny, for instance, while the second bored me to tears, even though the difference between the two is minuscule on paper. Madea is on fire in I Can Do Bad, however. She gets to be mean to kids AND a rare adult who has the stones to talk back and not be intimidated by her, which helps ground Madea in a more real version of Tyler Perry’s world than we’re used to.
And that’s all due to Taraji P. Henson, the best Tyler Perry actor out there. Alfre Woodard and Angela Bassett are both great in their respective Tyler Perry roles, but Henson is the queen. It takes a certain kind of actor to speak Perry’s dialog and not sound like an idiot. In I Can Do Bad All By Myself, we never doubt Henson for a second. Her very take on the character seems to overpower Tyler Perry’s whole message. Yeah, she’s a mess. Yeah, she drinks and fucks around. So what? She’s Taraji P. Henson and her life is awesome. When Madea berates her, she never allows an inch of shame like you would see with other Perry protagonists. Her ferocity is strong enough to stand toe to toe with Perry’s moral monolith and not blink.
Of course, her heart does eventually melt, but Henson pulls this off too, taking all the nonsense drama Perry normally forces upon these characters and internalizing it in a way that feels real, utilizing the contrast to her previous selfish strength as a measurement for how far she comes before the narrative ends. The character’s success has nothing to do with Tyler Perry and everything to do with Henson’s skill.
Henson’s been in a couple other Tyler Perry films, with another one, Acrimony, on the way later this year, but I doubt any of their collaborations will top I Can Do Bad All By Myself and its ability to bring Perry’s preaching into the real world, if only when Henson is on screen.