Lance Gross and Jurnee Smollett-Bell in Temptation. (Lionsgate/KC Bailey)
The plot of Tyler Perry’s latest film, Temptation, goes something like this: woman becomes unhappy in her marriage, decides to have an affair with a bad guy (after he borderline rapes her on a plane because Women Are Like That), bad guy is a drug addict, violent and HIV-positive to boot, woman ends up alone, diseased and unhappy, while her ex-husband finds happiness with a more virtuous woman. I mean, insert some weird chase scenes in a crappy pickup truck and some admittedly great costuming. But add on the downside bad acting (from no less than Kim Kardashian) and really terrible editing and I’ve mostly saved you the $14, if you were inclined to check it out. Probably you were already dissuaded by the terrible reviews in those places that even bothered to cover the film. Everyone seemed pretty convinced that the implication of the conclusion—that infidelity “deserves” punishment, and the punishment of HIV specifically—was complete hogwash.
And so comes an interesting meta-piece from the A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston on what he calls “white critics’ fear of offending the black community” in criticizing Perry. Alston is himself black. He writes that white—and frankly mostly male—critics who have been giving Perry too much of a pass until Temptation came along. Its awful politics on the borderline rape and HIV are what opened the space to trash Perry, Alston argues. Prior to that, as Alston described one critic’s experience, Perry’s work was treated as “a black thing” that white critics wouldn’t understand. So white critics resisted the urge to comment on Perry’s politics. Instead they’d criticize him—as I do above—for his bad art, on how sloppily his direction and dialogue are, for example.
I’m in lockstep with Alston on the matter of white criticism of Tyler Perry being often less-than-rigorous. I’d even take it further than he does. I can’t say, reading the coverage of Temptation Alston cites, that it felt that anyone but Lindy West really addressed the politics of women’s bodies in this film all that well, though Alston identifies the politics of women’s bodies as “the zeitgeist.” (I have a few women friends who write about rape and oh, I dunno, abortion, who seem to be having trouble getting white male zeitgeisty attention.) But I also agree when Alston explains that in practical effect, until Temptation, “criticism of Perry has been left to black critics and academics whose work doesn’t have the wide reach that mainstream white critics command, or the same ability to shape the dialogue about a film.” My logic just doesn’t follow him to the end that what this calls for is more white people talking about race, effectively appropriating the work those critics and academics have done for their own criticism.