Say what you will about Tyler Perry’s weaknesses as a writer-director — and plenty of critics have — he’s a resounding success when it comes to providing employment for many of today’s leading African-American actresses, a demographic that Hollywood studios don’t exactly go out of its way to hire. In both comedy and drama, Perry has provided a platform for some memorable performances. In honor of his latest film, Tyler Perry’s Temptation, here’s some of the best acting work from his movies to date.
Angela Bassett in Meet the Browns: While it spawned a sitcom of the same name, this drama plays it mostly straight, following the travails of single mom Brenda (Bassett), who leaves the mean streets of Chicago to take her sons down south to live in a house she has inherited from the father she never knew. Bassett is called upon to project weariness, skepticism and determination, but she makes the character vividly real, even in a tacked-on romance with a pro basketball player (played by real-life baller Rick Fox).
Bonus performance: Jenifer Lewis as a loud-talking and judgmental church lady.
Alfre Woodard in The Family That Preys: The story is mostly hooey — business machinations involving a rich white family and a working-class black one — but Woodard takes Perry’s usual saintly heroine and makes her crackle. Woodard’s Alice is a hard-working diner owner dealing with squabbling daughters and tending to a local homeless man, and the movie sends her out on a road trip with her rich pal Charlotte (Kathy Bates). The script divides its worship between Jesus and deux ex machina, but no matter how preachy or implausible the story becomes, Woodard single-handedly makes much of it believable thanks to how grounded she is.
Bonus performance: Kaira Akita as the receptionist who knows what’s going on behind closed doors.
Thandie Newton in Good Deeds: As a debt-plagued woman trying to raise her daughter, Newton brings a palpable desperation to her role as Lindsey, who’s working nights as a janitor in a downtown skyscraper. Also working late is the big boss, CEO Wesley Deeds (Perry), and their relationship jolts him out of his predictable doldrums and gives her a second opportunity to get her life (and her finances) together. When Lindsey coaxes Wesley into riding a motorcycle for the first time, Newton makes you believe the moment.
Bonus performance: Phylicia Rashad as Wesley’s frosty mother, one of the few rich and powerful women in the Perry canon who isn’t cartoonishly monstrous.
Mary J. Blige in I Can Do Bad All by Myself: Most of Blige’s role in this film is to come out and belt the title song, and in doing so, she provides the grit and the gravitas that the movie is mostly lacking. It’s a reminder of how powerful a singular and a nakedly emotional moment can be in a film that otherwise deals mostly in melodramatic contrivance and abrupt shifts from comedy to drama.
Bonus performance: Hope Alaide Wilson as the young girl who seems at first destined to fall prey to the cycles of abuse and addiction that killed her mother.
Kimberly Elise in Diary of a Mad Black Woman: Why the heck isn’t Kimberly Elise more of a household name? In films as varied as John Q, Beloved, Set It Off and the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, she reveals herself as one of this generation’s most compelling actresses, but even though she works fairly consistently, she rarely gets the credit she deserves. One of her most moving performances was in Diary of a Mad Black Woman — and yes, Perry didn’t direct it, but he wrote the script (based on his play) and costars in his big-screen debut as Madea, so it counts as one of his. Elise takes the underwritten character of Helen, a wronged wife, and imbues it with a determination and quiet power that keeps her afloat.
Bonus performance: Cicely Tyson as Helen’s wise mother.
Anika Noni Rose in For Colored Girls: Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s legendary choreo-poem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf provides opportunities for performers like Kerry Washington and Loretta Devine (as well as the aforementioned Thandie Newton and Phylicia Rashad) to sink their teeth into substantial, complicated characters. The MVP of this august company is Rose (Dreamgirls), as an enthusiastic young dancer who becomes the victim of assault. It’s a physically and emotionally punishing role, and she gives it her all.
Bonus performances: The rest of the ensemble, with the possible exceptions of Whoopi Goldberg and Janet Jackson, whose roles are so ludicrously one-dimensional they can do little to elevate them.
Teyana Taylor in Madea’s Big Happy Family: It’s not all misery and heartbreak in Tyler’s films; he’s got a gift for comedy, particularly when he doesn’t feel the need to undercut it with melodrama or moralizing. One of the most deliriously loony comic creations of his films is Taylor’s Sabrina, a gum-smacking fast-food cashier with the most hilariously screechy voice since Jean Hagen’s in "Singin’ in the Rain." (Check out the many YouTube videos of young children imitating it.) Sabrina lives to hector her ex-boyfriend (who fathered her child) and makes a hilarious foil for Perry’s no-nonsense Madea.
Bonus performance: Longtime Perry repertory member Cassi Davis as Aunt Bam, who “yes-ands” with the best of them.
Tyler Perry as Madea: Perry takes a lot of flak for this character — some people think it’s degrading for black male performers to do drag, others think she’s too much of a buffoon, still others object to her love of guns and marijuana, at least in the early movies — but the brash-talking, suffer-no-fools Madea is an inspired creation, and she’s by far more interesting than any of the male characters Perry has ever played. Perry has said he’s sick of putting on the wig and the fat suit (and his performance in the recent Madea’s Witness Protection certainly bears that out), but let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of this outspokenly outrageous lady.
Bonus performance: Tasha Smith, who gets to be wryly hilarious in Perry’s two Why Did I Get Married? movies and villainous in Daddy’s Little Girls.