Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Madea’s Family Reunion”

Dear Frank,

First, an important administrative note: For a number of reasons, I have pledged to spend the next month abstaining from alcohol, which means that until February 7th, all Liz Tells Frank subject matter will be reviewed stone cold sober. Given that a refreshing vodka soda or two in the past has helped dull the pain of child incest and born-again Christianity, I anticipate full mental breakdown around Week 3.

Especially with friends like these! Frank, I have received some excellent suggestions of things to tell you about in the future, though by excellent I mean excrutiating. I’m taking the bull by the horns here, though — that’s the cliche you use when you decide to watch a Tyler Perry film, right? Right.

I picked the wrong month to quit drinking, Frank.

Madea’s Family Reunion is the first Tyler Perry movie I have ever seen (and will, hopefully, ever see). According to Laurel, Kara and Aimee, who came over to watch with me and said many funny things that I’ll try and include in this letter, it was not quite as randomly violent and batshit insane as Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the film that launched the Tyler Perry empire. But that turns out to be a very very high bar for crazy indeed.

After the credits spell out Tyler Perry’s name in rose petals at least six times (he acts, writes, produces, directs AND does the music! Take that, Ed Wood and Orson Wells!), we arrive in a luxurious high-rise apartment, where a gal named Lisa sleeps between (presumably) silk sheets. “What year was this movie made? It looks like 1996,” Kara asks immediately. The answer turns out to be 2006, but it never really crosses into this millennium at any point.

I mention that, honestly, because I’m stalling, because I really don’t know how to do justice to the opening scene of this movie. Let me just offer you yet another valuable dating tip, Frank — in the future, should you find yourself engaged to a lovely lady, your sleeping fiancee may find it romantic if you cover her in rose petals that, when she awakes, lead her to the bathroom, where you have prepared a hot bath for her.

But if you’re going to do that, STOP THERE. Don’t hire A STRING QUARTET AND A LADY WITH A FAN to stand around the candlelit bathroom. And for god’s sake, if you are going to hire A STRING QUARTET AND A LADY WITH A FAN to stand around the bathroom while your finacee takes a bath, at least let her get undressed and into the bath in private. Don’t STRIP OFF HER NIGHTGOWN WITHOUT HER PERMISSION in front of A ROOM FULL OF STRANGERS.


The guy doing all this is played by Blair Underwood, by the way, which just breaks my heart because I have liked Blair Underwood in many past roles — even The Event, which is not necessarily at all a good show. And it only gets worse from here!

I think this is Lisa’s birthday or something, because after this incredibly weird bath scene, her sister Vanessa and another random girl show up to kidnap her for a glamourous spa day. While reclining poolside, the sistas get real about how tough it is to be a black woman, a concept I would normally be totally on board with except that they’re sipping champagne and getting hand massages at the same time. I mean, racial equality is still a long uphill battle, I get that, I’m just saying it’s been a long time since I simultaneously got a hand massage and sipped some champagne.

Oh, and then this guy just wanders into the spa to hit on Vanessa. I will say this for Tyler Perry’s dialogue — it is efficient: within two seconds we have learned that this guy is a bus driver who is also a painter. Vanessa blows him off, but SPOILERS she’s totally gonna hit that.

He knows it, too.

After the spa day the girls go back to Lisa’s apartment, and for some reason a stripper the other girls have hired shows up to groove on her. Blair Underwood walks in right in the middle of this, and Lisa is totally scared to see him but he plays it totally cool in front of her friends, telling her to have a good time…

Of course, the second her friends leave Lisa gets slapped around good, with some emotional terrorizing thrown in. He actually seems less upset about the fact that there was a half-naked man in his house and more upset about her not answering her phone all day… I dunno. He’s a bad man who wants to control her at all times. That’s the sole extent of his character development.

And then we finally meet Madea. I…I don’t want to talk about it. All you need to know is that she’s in court because she violated her house arrest and so the judge makes her take care of a 14-year-old, who is played by the very sweet Keke Palmer from Akeelah and the Bee (another actor who I have liked in other projects).

The girl gets whupped by Madea first in the car ride back to Madea’s house, then when the girl is late coming home (that time is with a belt). This movie has some very confusing messages about domestic violence, as Blair Underwood slapping Lisa around is generally considered to be a bad thing.

Frank, this is taking forever, but the actual sequence of events doesn’t really matter here — for timeline to matter, this movie would have to have any sort of structure. So I’m just gonna tell you what’s going on:

Blair Underwood is SO MEAN, but Lisa’s momma won’t let her leave him, because Momma isn’t doing well financially and needs this wedding to happen to stay afloat (why, I have no fucking clue, it’s just implied that she’s running out of money and that if Lisa and Blair get married, she’ll be fine). Blair tells Lisa that “I’ll love you to death” like it’s a death threat, which it is, especially when he does things like threaten to throw her off the high-rise balcony when she attempts to escape. Subtlety, thy name is this movie.

Oddly, Kara is very good at predicting exactly when and how Blair Underwood is going to hit Lisa. She claims that she and Blair Underwood never had an abusive engagement, but we suspect that she’s just covering for him. “Kara, show us on the doll where Blair Underwood hurt you,” Laurel asks, but no dice.

Meanwhile, the other sister, Vanessa, starts dating Bus Driver Painter Guy after he successfully gets her to go out with him in front of a busload of passengers and isn’t freaked out by her already having two kids by two different baby daddies. For their first date, they go out to an open mike poetry club where, out of nowhere, they do this beat poetry/live sketch session together (Bus Driver Painter Guy, despite claiming to love painting, never holds a paintbrush once in this movie). Cool first date. Very cool. Their subsequent dates seem really great — they are a totally non-abusive functional couple, and their kids get along well — but Vanessa has some Emotional Trauma that keeps her from being able to get too close. (You better believe that a big emotional reveal is a’coming.)

Lisa tries to leave Blair and comes to stay at Madea’s house where Vanessa also lives; while they never explicitly tell Madea that Lisa’s fiance is beating her, Madea gives Lisa’s “friend” the following advice: Specifically, boil some grits and then throw them on the guy.

I still don’t really want to talk about Madea; she’s an obnoxious caricature whose actions are limited to physically abusing people, saying wise and inspirational things, and making decade-old pop culture references. All you need to know, Frank, is that she’s successfully rehabilitated little Akeelah, and she told Lisa to throw grits on abusive assholes. Aimee, confused by the messages of this film, wore Hulk hands for most of it — to keep her feelings under control, I suppose.

Oh, like an hour into this movie, by the way, the family reunion happens. It is entirely an opportunity to bring in respected elders of the African American community, who then proceed to lecture the Youth of Today on their moral decline. Maya Angelou, I have read your memoirs, do not pretend you were any sort of saint in your early days.

"The Heart of a Woman" has SEXY BITS, y'all.

It’s also a chance for Vanessa and her momma to have a big public slapfight after having a very private and very awful fight about that time that Momma let her husband, who was threatening to leave her, rape Vanessa. YIKES.

After the reunion, we skip pretty much immediately to the wedding day of Lisa and Blair, because for some reason I SERIOUSLY DO NOT KNOW WHY OR WHEN Lisa has gone back to Blair Underwood. Except, and again I HAVE NO IDEA WHY, on the morning of the wedding she is at Madea’s house, and because she is running late Blair Underwood comes to the house to slap her around some more. Madea isn’t just a psychopath, though — she’s also an enabler, which is why there’s a big pot of boiling grits on the stove. It takes about two minutes for Lisa to throw them into his face, probably causing third-degree burns and doing damage to his eyes, ears and mouth. Abusive fiancé problem SOLVED.

What problem isn’t solved, though? Oh, but there’s a big fancy wedding all planned, but no bride and groom! Fortunately, we have a non-abusive couple ready to step up and take it on: Vanessa and Bus Driver Painter Guy tie the knot instead. (This is also when Kara pointed out that Bus Driver Painter Guy was played by Boris Kodjoe, yet another actor I really liked in other stuff, but like much more without hair and a ridiculous soul patch, as it turns out.)

Ahhhhh, yes. That's better.

I would need a thousand words to describe what is wrong with this wedding decor, by the way, but this is already way too long so here’s a picture:

Those are real people suspended from the ceiling, by the way. The movie that starts with a creepy romantic gesture ends with a creepy romantic gesture, I suppose. But whatever THEY GET MARRIED THE END.

Final thoughts, Frank: The Madea films, to the best of my understanding, are meant to be comedies, and to be fair, in Shakespeare’s day, the defining characteristic of a comedy versus a tragedy was that a comedy ended with a wedding. But that was when they only had two genres of entertainment, and didn’t consider child rape that big a deal.



About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on January 10, 2011, in All the Spoilers, Movies, No Spoilers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. I swear Blair Underwood is not at this moment making me type that we never had an abusive relationship.

  2. You quit drinking BEFORE this movie? I needed a drink half way through the story. I need a drink just to forget this story.

  3. Oh dear. I’ve long wondered what the appeal of Tyler Perry movies was, but as a Very White Girl I just figured, oh, I’m not going to say anything, because I obviously Just Don’t Get It. (Not to mention, they make me randomly capitalize and I’ve never even seen any.) I guess I’m glad that Tyler Perry is giving so many African American actors work…? Maybe? Thanks for taking another one for the team, Liz!

    • That’s actually something I didn’t fully emphasize here, but I think Tyler Perry movies are the best sign of the discrepancy in roles available for black actors in mainstream Hollywood. So many talented people are in his movies! So many.

  4. Tyler Perry = Shakespeare. Got it.

  5. Wait – Madea’s punishment for violating house arrest is to have a random child put in her care?!? What the hell kind of law is that?

  6. Sick fools! You all do not get the hang of it. Wretched lots. You keep discriminating while he grows. That’s what happens to people who get mad at other people’s success. As for you the author of this hate and jelous page,its because your life is shit! That you write this! You are a drunk and you will always be. Your so angry with your self. Stupid bitches!

  7. are you SURE you are not only drinking, BUT ALSO on hard drugs as well?

  8. I’m European and I totally got the movie, you’re just a jack ass! White Americans are so stuck on themselves! I LOVED THE MOVIE and found humor in it!!

  9. I only just read this article, and its funny I stumbled across it because I was just watching family reunion the other day…To the author of this article, this movie is about a old black woman who is actually played by a young black man (that already sounds ridiculous) To me nothing in this movie is designed to be taken seriously. I am surprised that you took the time to review it with the seriousness that you did. You yourself rightly called Madea a caricature, shouldn’t that indicate that it is a film which exaggerates the themes it deals with for the purpose of comedy? As for your comment about Maya Angelo ITS CALLED ACTING!!! you know, that thing people do when they go into films? They take on a personality other than the one they have in real life. I completely respect the fact that you are reviewing this film, but you are a little too heavy handed for a film that obviously didn’t intend to deal seriously with real life situations. My advise? please identify the kind of film you are reviewing before you rush in to display your fancy writing because right now you are doing the equivalent of killing an ant with a machine gun….not very clever is it?

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