I’m concerned. I tend to be concerned about many things in the world, but this one is troubling. Tyler Perry’s new movie Temptation appears to have finally beaten into African American culture that there is some type of monomyth surrounding Black life. Somehow Black life has yet again been equated with a sense of morality that simplifies Blackness. There seems to be a continuous story in Tyler Perry’s films that seek to define Black life into a singular story arc that is inescapable in Perry’s world, which supposedly reflects certain circumstances for Black people. I certainly don’t mean to say that what Perry presents is not some facet of Black life. That would be as elementary as the idea of Perry’s monomyth. After nearly 8 years of movies, I believe that it is very clear that there are repetitious rules in Perry’s films that make Black life conflated to one particular plane. In a few points I will quickly explain using Temptation as a source as to how the monomyth of Black life operates in the world of Perry’s films and plays.
The stasis: Mediocrity Saves The World. Ambition Shakes The World
Temptation starts off with a story of ambition gone too far. Judith starts in a position of telling a story of her “sister” who falls from grace. Of course, Judith is speaking of herself as she starts at a matchmaking service where she is clearly unhappy. She has her long time friend and husband, Brice, who works at a pharmacy. However, Brice is a “good negro” figure who is cautious, contained, and patient while Judith is frustrated with her position at the firm. Judith desires to open her own office and since obtaining a master degree she wants to do this fast. However, Brice constantly starves her ambitions by saying that she can open her own practice in about 15 years. Brice insists that Judith be patient and simply cook, clean, and sleep with him at least 3 times a week.
The simple idea is this: if a Black man or woman (usually woman) wants anything else other than a marriage and a less than fulfilling job, the world must be disrupted. This has been done before in Perry’s movies. Take The Family that Preys as an example. Sanaa Lathan’s character is positioned as a woman who disrupts the stasis of the world by having an affair with her high-powered boss. I am certainly not endorsing her affair or for Black women to have affairs but is it so terrible that she wants a person who is highly successful? While her husband wants to be successful too, he is again cautious about how successful his wife is. Ambition becomes equated with sin and lust. Somehow wanting more means wanting to have an extramarital affair. Or in the case of Madea’s Family Reunion wanting a husband who does not abuse you, which in this movie means having to leave her husband (which is again sinful and immoral). Something similar happens in Diary of a Mad Black Woman where the woman must leave her husband in order to be happy.
What message is being sent when in numerous films ambition must shake the world we are in? It happens more often that Black women should fear being ambitious and somehow settle for a marriage with far less ambition or far more abuse (which of course should be taken according to the mother in Madea’s Family Reunion).
The Rising Action: The perfect Black Man/Woman
So now that we have entered a world where ambition shakes the world, there must be a cause for this ambition, a physical manifestation. In Temptation, this comes in the form of Harley: a rich, successful Black man who comes to Judith’s matchmaking firm looking for a match of course. There his sinful eyes lie on Judith. Although Judith is clothed conservatively, Harley looks at her in a lustful way, but also admires her intellectual. Harley has everything in the world it seems: a plane, a great intellect, a built body, a fast car, and a desire that cannot be quenched. He begins to play mind games with Judith making her question her marriage and status in the world while also working with her professionally. Harley encourages Judith to open her own practice as a marriage counselor. He thinks that she is beautiful and intellectually stimulating. And of all things, he remembers her birthday. All these things make Harley a charming, handsome, successful man. He may be sinful in wanting a married woman, but they seem much more compatible than Brice and Judith. This man appears perfect, something that at least most Black men should look up to.
The Climax: The Broken Illusion
The next monomyth of Black life is that the illusion is broken. The climax of the film comes when we discover the Harley is nothing as what he appears to be. He ends up raping Judith in order to fulfill his sexual desires with her (and projects those desires onto Judith afterwards). Harley is also abusive, a drug user (cocaine?), and narcissistic. He goes from being the model looking Black man (model is a stretch but for the sake of argument) to being the worst Black man on earth. This makes the “good negro” Brice look like a patron saint. Not only does Harley have all of this, but also at the end the audience discovers that Harley has HIV and has spread the disease to several women. I believe the climax of the movie is when we see that Judith is completely broken. There is nothing that can be done to mend her ways or return to any resemblance of the old stasis at the beginning of the movie.
The monomyth in Perry’s world seems to suggest that the world of Black life is constantly shaken when an illusion is broken.
The Falling Action: The Savior Comes To The Rescue
This monomyth is pretty simple. The “good negro” comes to the rescue in one final hoorah. See: Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Madea Goes To Jail.
The Resolution: The Marriage/Divorce
There is a rule of thumb in comedy: Almost all comedies end in marriage. Why? Because balance must be restored to the world. Most if not all of Perry’s films end in either a marriage or divorce which gives the idea that someone is either being rewarded or punished for their actions. In this case the monomyth places a value on the characters that inhabit this world. In Temptation, getting a divorce and Brice choses to marry another woman and have a child punishes Judith. In addition to this punishment, Judith contracts HIV (the same happens in For Colored Girls with The Lady in Red). Someone in every Perry movie is rewarded or punished through love/marriage. This places a value on someone in the world. Literally. The clear lesson is that those who are rewarded are those who have been patient, who want a nuclear family of some kind, and those who are humble aka Brice. Those who are punished have pursued dangerous activities, broken the law, too ambitious, and impatient aka Judith.
The Conclusion: The Monomyth Lives On
The truth of the matter is that money is speech. Where we choose to put our dollars says volumes about what we value. We have come to accept Perry’s films as a kind of truth about Black life. The same moments appear in every movie, giving the impression that these moments represent the whole of Black life. This gives a simplest portrayal of Black stories that should be complex and multi layered. As long as this monomyth continues such as Temptation continues it, we will see more of this one myth of Black life.