Madea Matters: 15 Things To Remember About Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Tyler Perry's big-screen debut 15 years ago also marked the first outing for no-nonsense matriarch Madea—and the first brick in his cinematic empire

By Natalie Finn Feb 25, 2020 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Tyler Perry Shares What He'll Miss Most About "Madea"

Tyler Perry has built an entertainment empire. He owns one of the largest independently operated studios churning out content today, and he's one of the richest people in showbiz.

But he had to start somewhere.

Fifteen years ago, Perry wrote, produced and starred in his first movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, about Helen, a housewife who has an emotional and spiritual awakening after her husband of 18 years unceremoniously leaves her for another woman. She's aided in her recovery by a diary in which she chronicles her deepest feelings—and by her fiery, wisecracking granny, Madea, who helps Helen calculate her self-worth. Literally, at one point.

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50 Fascinating Facts About Tyler Perry: From Living in His Car to Owning a Studio and Hanging Out With Oprah

Diary of a Mad Black Woman also marked the first appearance in a movie by Madea, played by a heavily made-up Perry in a fat suit, wig and glasses. The character was an instant hit with audiences, if not always critics, and a slew of Madea-centric movies followed.

But this one started it all, and though it may have been a no-brainer later, not everyone was angling to make a movie with Perry—or his outspoken alter ego—at first. Here's how the film, the success of which played a significant role in the future greenlighting of more movies featuring black casts and telling these contemporary slice-of-life stories, got made:

1. Tyler Perry's first play, a gospel musical about adult victims of child abuse inspired by his own life called I Know I've Been Changed, finally took off in Atlanta in 1998, six lean years after its first staging, some of which he spent living in his car. In 2001 he started shopping the play Diary of a Mad Black Woman to Hollywood studios for a possible film adaptation. He heard "no" more than a few times before Lions Gate Films bought the script in 2004.

 

"I met one studio," Perry told the Los Angeles Times in 2005, "and the guy told me, 'Black people go to church, they don't go to movies.' And I thought, I'm not going to be able to do this movie here, and I left. I went to another studio and started getting all these notes on my script—change this, change that..." Finally, Perry said, he decided he'd finance the production himself and put it on DVD.

 

"Then I get a call from Lions Gate, and they're like, 'What do we need to do to be in business with you?'" he recalled. Once he felt assured that his creative wishes would be fairly considered, "it was, 'Good, let's do it.'"

2. "Madea"—the name a Southern colloquialism short for "mother dear" and the character inspired by Perry's mother, Willie Maxine, his "pistol in a purse"-toting aunt Mayola—made her first appearance in Chicago in a production of Perry's 2000 play I Can Do Bad All by Myself. The character was only supposed to be onstage for a short bit, but when another actress with a larger part didn't show up one night, Perry extended the Madea role—and she was a hit.

"The softer, more sympathetic side is my mother," Perry explained to Oprah Winfrey for magazine in 2010. "'Cause I would often say, 'She will beat the hell out of you, then turn around and offer you some pie and a Band-Aid or a ride to the hospital.'"

3. Perry gave himself the OK to play not just an older woman but also multiple characters onscreen after seeing and admiring Eddie Murphy's performance as both male and female members of one family in The Nutty Professor sequel The Klumps. In Diary, Perry plays Madea; Madea's lascivious brother Uncle Joe, a character that first appeared in I Know I've Been Changed; and Joe's straitlaced son, Brian.

Brian is an attorney and family man whose wife is struggling with drug addiction, and he's torn between trying to make it work and knowing she's become an unfit mother to their two kids.

4. The 26-room Atlanta mansion that belongs to Steve Harris' Charles and Kimberly Elise's Helen—the mansion that Charles kicks his devoted wife Helen out of so he can live with the woman he secretly fathered two kids with instead, requiring Helen to go stay with her granny Madea—was Perry's actual house, which he christened Avec Chateau. 

 

Often asked around that time why he, a then-single man who basically lived alone, needed so much space, he told Oprah in 2005, "It's not that I needed this much space. I wanted this house to speak to the possibility of what your life can be when you believe." (Which is what he meant when he told the New York Times in 2004 that the house "was a testament to my religious faith.")

5. There are obvious morals to Perry's stories, and one of the big lessons to be learned from Diary of a Mad Black Woman is about importance of family and the simple pleasures in life—simplicity Helen lost sight of while caught up in the materialism and social striving of Charles' world—and the ways in which women, especially women of color, can find their identities slipping away in their attempt to please or "fit in." 

 

"It is a very powerful message that needs to fall on some good ground to grow in Atlanta," Perry explained to the Los Angeles Times in 2005. "Because a lot of people—especially a lot of African American people—are caught up in the grind of more, more, more."

6. Talking about what inspired Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Perry recalled in 2005 on The Oprah Winfrey Show a time when his mother, suffering complications from diabetes, was blinded for about three months after eye surgery. "And my father, being true to his character, would take her to the hospital and drop her at the corner and drive off, and leave her there. And she would have to depend upon the kindness of strangers to help her get into the hospital." Three months later, his father was temporarily blinded in an accidental explosion, and his mom duly took care of him. "She taught me something that day," Perry said. "She said, 'I can't let him change me.' She nursed him back to health, she was there for him, she held his hand all the way through it. It just showed me how amazing she is."

 

And so, Helen doesn't turn her back on Charles after he's paralyzed in a shooting—though she does look after herself in the end, too, and pursues a new life with the hunky Orlando, played by Shamar Moore.

7. Asked if she could see herself forgiving a cheater like Charles in real life, Elise told MovieWeb, "For me, I would actually. The thing is, you forgive but you don't forget. Y'know, that whole experience was a lesson in life. First, she got out of it and didn't lose her entire life to it. She could forgive him, because you have to. For me, I understand that. I'm mature enough to know that if I live with this hate and anger, it's just going to swallow me up and they're going to be just fine."

8. Taraji P. Henson and Blair Underwood were in the running to play Helen and Charles, and while this project didn't work out, each would work with Perry down the road. Underwood was in Madea's Family Reunion, Perry's directorial debut, in 2006, and Perry directed Henson in The Family That Preys, I Can Do Bad All by Myself and Tyler Perry's Acrimony.

9. Not everyone was sold on the idea of acting alongside Perry in drag—since, after all, this was Madea's first outing. 

 

"When I first got the script, it was kind of scary," Elise admitted to MovieWeb in 2005. "I was like, 'A guy dressed as a woman? That's not funny. I don't get it.' It wasn't until I sat down with Tyler, basically, and we all sat around and read the script. I couldn't make it through the script without absolutely dying."

10. After the arraignment scene where Helen makes bail and Madea gets house arrest after they show up at Helen's former home in an attempt to collect some of what's hers, the judge is seen calling up her next case—"repeat offender" Bobby Brown. You can hear a woman who's supposed to be Whitney Houston scream off-camera, "Bobby! Bobby, I love you!" "Sit down, Ms. Houston!" the judge orders her.

 

Perry and Houston actually became close friends in real life, and he tried to help her as she struggled with the addictions that eventually contributed her death by accidental drowning in 2012. Perry spoke at her funeral. "I felt a huge responsibility for her, for Whitney herself," he said on Oprah's Next Chapter in 2013. "From the first day we sat down in that restaurant and had a conversation, where she was so open with me, I felt a responsibility to do all I could to help her because I sensed—like most people who deal with people who have addiction issues—they sense that there is a death day coming." He had Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, come on his sitcom For Better or Worse when she wanted to try acting.

11. The film won two NAACP Image Awards, Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture for Elise and Outstanding Supporting Actress for Cicely Tyson, who plays Helen's mother, Myrtle, and five BET Comedy Awards: Outstanding Theatrical Film, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Theatrical Film and Outstanding Writing for Perry, Outstanding Lead Actress for Elise, and Outstanding Directing for Darren Grant.

 

Tyson played Nana Mama, the beloved grandmother of Perry's titular D.C. detective, in Alex Cross seven years later.

12. Shemar Moore in real life wasn't so far off from the passionate Orlando, who memorably tells Helen that all she needs to do is wake up every morning, "and I'll take it from there." 

 

"I do think that any character that I do, I've got to find some truth to it," Moore told Oprah in 2005, "and so Orlando definitely is a part of me...[My mother] told me, 'Baby, don't worry about making everybody happy. Just give, you gotta listen. Be who you are, and they will come.' And so as far as romance, I mean, when I'm feelin' you, I do the corny stuff...I know one Valentine's Day I did the rose petals from the front door, up to the stairs, to the refrigerator..." But he stopped short of revealing who all that was for. 

 

13. Orlando's lion tattoo in the film was not real, but Moore—who had been considering getting a tattoo for years beforehand—was inspired to finally go for it, and he got his own lion on his right shoulder after the production wrapped.

14. Diary of a Mad Black Woman cost $5.5 million to make, half of the money coming from Perry himself. "As far as mainstream audiences go," he told the LA Times, "I really just hope [audiences] will give it a chance and come at it with an open mind. If you're looking to classify, you're not going to get it. It's not a comedy, it's not a drama, it's everything. When I was writing it, I was in a meeting at this studio and this lady asked me, 'Why did this happen in the third act?' and I was like, 'What's the third act?' I don't write from those experiences, I don't understand the three-act structure and this needs to happen by this time. I just tell the story the way it feels to me."

 

Diary of a Mad Black Woman grossed $50.6 million. The following year he opened Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.

 

15. In 2008, Perry won a lawsuit brought against him by playwright Donna West, who accused him of swiping the plot from her play Fantasy of a Black Woman. The case went to trial, and a jury ruled unanimously that Perry had not pilfered the plot. His attorney told the Associated Press afterward, "We are very pleased that the jurors understood that Tyler Perry is an incredibly talented person who has no need to copy the work of others."

Madea kept making movies up until last year, when she ostensibly made her final appearance, in A Madea Family Funeral, after director-writer-producer-star Perry—whose acting portfolio has expanded to include the likes of Gone Girl and Vice—finally felt that he had said all he needed to say through the filter of the now iconic character.

But since the funeral wasn't hers—and heck, even if it was—the door is open for a Madea return if it turns out she's needed.

Which, going by precedent, will probably be the case at some point.