DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN directed by Darren Grant, written by Tyler Perry from Perry's play, produced by Perry and Reuben Cannon, with Kimberly Elise, Perry, Steve Harris, Shemar Moore and Cicely Tyson. 116 minutes. A Lions Gate release. Opens Friday (March 18). For venues and times, see Movies, page 90. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
If Kimberly Elise looked like Halle Berry, she'd have an Oscar by now. If she looked like Hilary Swank, she might have two.
But Elise looks like a real woman, a real black woman, with features darker than Halle plus a paper bag and a face that can rush from grim to gamine in an instant.
So the parts she gets offered are character roles. In Beloved, she was Oprah Winfrey's gristle-and-backbone daughter. She played the suffering single mother in Set It Off, and the suffering married mother in John Q., opposite Denzel Washington.
"I like playing parts that are about perseverance," Elise protests down the phone line. "The suffering is part of the journey to strength. I play women who are survivors and who make it through difficult trials, not characters who are suffering."
There's that backbone again.
At last, it's found a home. Just when the depth and range of Elise's talent was in danger of being wasted playing persevering bit parts, along comes a whole new genre of movies tailor-made to her skills.
Last year she starred in Woman Thou Art Loosed, a romantic cautionary tale with a strong Christian theme. Yes, her character suffered, this time sexual abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend. And, yes, she persevered. The difference? This was her movie. She played the lead, and she just tore up the screen.
Now, Elise is back in the film that officially announces the new phenomenon. Diary Of A Mad Black Woman came out of nowhere three weeks ago to top the U.S. box office, pushing Will Smith's Hitch to number two. It earned $21.9 million in three days. Its budget was $5 million, which means it broke even before the sun set on opening night.
The critics were mixed at best on Diary, but audiences ate it up. People who never go out to see movies were chartering buses and returning for second and third viewings. Whole church congregations went en masse. And 75 per cent who went to see Diary on its first weekend were black women. All ages of black women.
"I hear from granddaughters who took their grandmothers to see the film," Elise says, amazed.
So what is this new wave that she finds herself riding?
At heart, Diary is a redemption story. Elise plays Helen, the wife of a rich Atlanta lawyer who subjects her to emotional abuse of almost comic-book proportions. She's kicked to the curb, but eventually finds love in the arms of a virtually perfect man. So far it's classic melodrama. But between heartbreak and true love there's a message of Christian sufferance and family values, and a contrasting seam of broad comedy, most of it from Helen's grandmother, played by a man in drag.
To understand Diary, you have to know that the man in drag is Tyler Perry. Diary is based on his immensely popular and lucrative stage play. The sprawling mansion seen in the film is his. Perry wrote the screenplay for Diary, co-produced and plays three roles in the film, including gun-toting, trash-talking Madea.
Perry has hit on a pop formula that, for a mainstream African-American audience, has the catch-all thrills of a Bollywood film - romance, intrigue, laughs, tears and, above all, prayer. Online magazine Salon calls it churchotainment.
It's an amazing development, but it's not new. Spencer Williams, best known in his later years as Andy in the shuffle-and-jive TV comedy Amos 'N' Andy, directed a series of potboiler movies in the 1940s with plots Tyler Perry would recognize. The key ingredients: a bad man, a good woman and Jesus.
Now that the formula's been resurrected to the tune of $21.9 million, Hollywood is paying attention.
"They really think they have everything figured out," Elise says of the big studios, "but after a while everything starts to look the same. So it's nice to have something new, something that says, 'You don't have it figured out, Hollywood. '"
She adds wryly, "Everybody's gonna jump on the Tyler bandwagon now, of course."
But she's not completely surprised by Diary's success. "I thought it would do well," she says. "I didn't know it would do as well as it did as quickly as it did. But I knew we made a great film."
And she rejects any notion that this is a movie for black women, or even black people.
"I was in my tax guy's office yesterday," she says with some relish. "It's an office full of Caucasian men, all of whom had seen the film and could not stop talking about it. One guy said, 'I was just in Minnesota, and my sister couldn't stop talking about it. So we went to see it.' It was amazing to see that it's really crossed over, and that race has nothing to do with it."
Nor, says Elise, was the Christian theme the most important element for her.
"Certainly, it's positive," she says, "but I was more attracted to the overall character's journey. No matter who you are and what you believe, it's a human story you can relate to and care about."
OK, OK, it's a human story. I guess this is what perseverance looks like.
As dogged as Elise can be in conversation, you have to admire her. Bit part by bit part, she's made a reputation for herself, enough of a reputation that the very core of the black mainstream now buys her as its everywoman.
At the same time, to anyone who cares to pay attention, she's become one of the best actors of her generation. Onscreen, Elise works her emotions like athletes work muscle. She's fearless without being prideful, a feat never managed by predecessors like Angela Bassett or even her two-time co-star Denzel Washington. In fact, if anything makes Diary Of A Mad Black Woman a human story, it's Elise's craft.
"Life can be very hard for people sometimes, and people take a lot from movies," she says philosophically. "They like to see people persevere. They pull energy from it. I like that."
DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN (Darren Grant) Rating: NNN
This is a movie like a Jackie Collins book is a novel. It defies all sense of discipline and good taste, but it's hugely pleasurable.
Kimberly Elise stars as the pissed-off sister in question, dumped by her rich Atlanta lawyer husband, then taken in by her grandmother, a trash-talking mountain of a woman who's actually played by a man.
Tyler Perry adapts his hit play and takes on three different roles, including the vaudevillian grandma. Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) brings much-needed humanity to a story that swings between high melodrama and even higher camp.
Romance! Revenge! Jesus! Drag! The four pillars of major box-office in 2005.