Last Friday, director, producer, actor, and writer Tyler Perry added yet another project to his filmography. Acrimony, starring Taraji P. Henson, hit theatres looking and feeling very familiar to anyone who has seen any of the previous 21 films that Perry has spearheaded. The word acrimony means “anger and bitterness,” and Perry totally ran with this theme, to say the least. Henson plays Melinda, a woman who has spent most of her life supporting the fickle professional dreams of her husband Robert (Lyriq Bent). However, she also suffers from deep-seated rage that sends her into a relentless blind rage when triggered. Acrimony builds up to Melinda’s inability to accept that the newly wealthy Robert has moved on following their divorce, and the lengths that she’ll go to enact revenge. It’s a simple premise that could have worked if it weren’t so contrived and repetitive on Perry’s part.
The renowned producer, who got his start writing and producing plays for predominantly Black audiences, has faced criticism since breaking into film for his portrayals of both Black men and women. His leading men are always either abusive and manipulative, or good-hearted men who may or may not be down on their luck. In Acrimony, Robert refuses to work because of his obsession with a battery invention he’s patented, leaving Melinda to work harder in order to support them. Viewers are meant to empathise with the sacrifices she made as a faithful wife. However, part of Perry’s problem is that his Black female characters are always dependent on the attention and love of the men around them. Even more exhausting is his fascination with resentment, jealousy, and pettiness as guiding emotions.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Henson ahead of the film’s release to ask about this trend in Perry’s films, and whether not she thought Melinda fit into it. “[Perry is] not snatching these characters out of the sky. These characters exist,” she reasoned. “My job is not to judge it. I do my job, and I do it as truthfully and as honestly as I can. I leave it up to the audience to judge.” Perhaps playing the best devil’s advocate for Melinda, Henson suggested that she may be more than a stereotype for some people. “If I judge the characters that I portray if I get on my high horse and say, ‘this character is not good for the Black community,’ well, what about that girl or that person out there that needs this story because they identify with it? I’m sorry that it makes you feel some kind of way, but somebody out there needs it,” she insisted. “That’s why it’s a story to be told. I can’t judge that as an artist. Because if I do, I’m doing a disservice to this character and to that person in the world who needs [it].” As an actress, Henson can’t judge the woman Perry has put forth as Acrimony’s antagonist. But viewers can.
“Angry Black woman” is just one trope that is still already readily available to the masses, thanks in part to Perry. Most of his central female characters are suffering from some emotional instability that can only be helped with the love of a good man or Jesus. From For Colored Girls to I Can Do Bad All By Myself, internalised trauma redirected at the outside world by Black women has been Perry’s forte. His first film, adapted from his eponymous stage play, was actually called Diary Of A Mad Black Woman. Perry specialises in Black women that are “broken,” and the ones who can’t be fixed often suffer from some permanent punishment as a result. In Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, a cheating wife contracts HIV. A woman’s spiteful actions against her ex lead to his untimely death in Why Did I Get Married, Too?. And spoiler alert: Melinda doesn’t make it to end of Acrimony alive.
Perry is up to his old (and profitable) tricks, and unfortunately, it’s neither inspiring nor relatable. It’s possible that Perry’s obsession with the depths of Black women’s darkest emotions isn’t necessarily a condemnation. I’m not implying that he hates Black women and can’t see the value in our good qualities as well. I just wish he was as invested as showing those as he is the wildly violent ones.