From Madea to Medea: Tyler Perry takes on Greek tragedy in Acrimony

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

By Natalie Rich

Every time a black woman gets angry, she’s a stereotype.” So says Melinda to her court-appointed anger management counselor. Melinda Gayle, played by a tragically misused Taraji P. Henson, is stuck in therapy because she has been terrorizing her ex-husband Robert (Lyriq Bent) and his new wife Diana (Crystle Stewart). What follows is a narrated history of Melinda’s side of the story, from the first time she meets Robert up to the present.

Though not advertised as such, it is clear that “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony” is a modern adaptation of the Greek play “Medea” by Euripides. For those unfamiliar with the story, it details the life of Medea and Jason. Medea kills her brother to escape with Jason and enable his victories, only to have him abandon her. He chooses to marry a princess to advance his power and subsequently orders Medea and her children to be excommunicated. Medea then poisons the new bride’s wedding dress, killing her, and murders her own children to spite Jason.

By contrast, the plot of “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony” starts out fairly simple: Melinda and Robert meet in college. He cons her into giving him her inheritance, rebuking her sisters, staying with him despite his philandering ways and eventually marrying him. He then continues the grift for the next decade of her life, manipulating Melinda into working two jobs to sustain their life as Robert tinkers with his self-charging battery that seems destined to fail. This first half of the film, featuring Ajiona Alexus and Antonio Madison as young Melinda and Robert, respectively, is easily the best part. Madison plays Robert as a convincingly smooth conman, and it is easy to see how Melinda stays with him: his apologies are just right, his excuses just believable enough. What woman hasn’t known a Robert? Ajiona Alexus has definite potential as the young Melinda. In a male-focused film, we would be led to see her as weak, but as Henson’s Melinda argues, what kind of a man takes the virginity of a young woman grieving the loss of her mother? Of course she fell for him hook, line and sinker. However, she is not a hapless victim. Melinda is full of a rage that cannot be contained. Upon finding Robert cheating on her, she crashes her car into his trailer, injuring herself and losing her ovaries in the process — a modern-day version of killing her children, since infanticide is not as normal nowadays as it was in Euripides’ time.

Whereas the first half of the movie sets up a solid narrative of a woman struggling under the weight of a manipulative partner, the second half of the movie is a haphazard schlocky affair. Melinda divorces Robert, who then immediately achieves success with his battery. He tries to make platonic amends with Melinda, leading to her trying to get back together with Robert. It is then revealed that Robert has gotten engaged to Diana, who helped him sign a deal for his battery in the first place — and who just happens to be the girl Robert cheated on Melinda with all those years ago. Crystle Stewart is a fine actress, but her only purpose in this film is to be the “younger, prettier second wife” stereotype for Henson’s Melinda to rage against. Melinda goes on an alcohol- and anger-induced bender, threatening the couple and even destroying Diana’s wedding dress with acid (an admittedly clever nod to the poisoned wedding gown in the original play). From there, the movie devolves into a scattered horror show of jumpscares and cliches before mercifully ending abruptly.

I have no issue with Tyler Perry’s works overall. He is a competent director, and the work he does to lift up black voices in film is admirable. However, this film was a severe misstep on all counts. Though based on a play famous for its incredible dialogue and fierce female lead, “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony” manages to be both flat and regressive. The dialogue rarely rises above a simmer, despite Henson’s best attempts. “You know I can be the devil” hisses Melinda at one point, which should have been a tense moment, but her rage fails to elicit any response from the other actors, leaving her threats hollow. In the beginning, the film is definitely on Melinda’s side; however, once we catch up with the present, her character becomes the very stereotype it wanted to avoid. Turns out Jason is not a bad guy after all, apparently. In response to his kind gestures, Melinda starts flipping through a rolodex of damaging stereotypes: her attempt to get back together with Robert and subsequent attempt to sue him make her read as a golddigger type. Then, the script abandons her character’s motivations and leaves the audience thinking that she’s a diagnosably mentally ill woman lashing out at nonexistent demons.

It is clear that Perry wants the audience to question the nature of objectivity by showing “both sides of the story” but it results in a jumbled, disjunctured mess. Complexity is not a vice, but making Jason the hero at the last minute rings false. Also, if Perry wanted to make Melinda a critique of stereotypical black female rage, then forcing Henson into the acting pit of “generic crazy/angry woman” was the wrong choice to make. To quote the man sitting next to me when the credits began to roll: “What the hell was that.”

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