We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest. – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Fear begins in the not knowing—it is the last defense against understanding and the forebear of malicious assumption. There is a febrile hate that arises from fear, a hate that gives license to judgment and solidifies intolerance. Oftentimes this fear-born hate will coat itself in the liniments of devotion, perfuming the body of the vessel in which it lies in the hopes of masking its putrid stink. There are no gradations to this dichotomous hate. You are either one of us or one of them. You are saved or you are damned. You are dirty or you are clean. This is the simplistic and spiteful world of Tyler Perry’s Temptation, a film that managed to simultaneously offend my cinematic and ethical sensibilities in equal and ample degree. I am quite used to sitting through films laden with trite dialogue and unnecessarily drawn out and telegraphed plot points, but I am having a hard time remembering the last time I saw a movie that so wretchedly tied the quality of its content to the inadequacy of its production. In Temptation, Tyler Perry has turned what otherwise would have been an unremarkable bit of cinematic drivel into an unintentional monument to the cannibalizing prejudice that haunts great swaths of the African American community today.
The actual plot of Temptation isn’t worthy of much synopsis, mainly because anyone reading this who went to Sunday school as a child or has ever watched a soap opera knows what’s going to happen from the first scene. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, Perry establishes that his two main characters, Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Brice (Lance Gross), met when they were kids, got married when they were 19 and moved to Washington DC after grad school, where Brice became a pharmacist at what must be the only mom and pop pharmacy in the District not bought out by CVS and Judith gets a job as a relationship counselor at a millionaire matchmaking service.1 Naturally, during her first week on the job, an impossibly attractive twenty-something social media mogul, Harley (Robbie Jones), comes into the office with vague intentions to “invest” in the company. Harley immediate latches onto the very married Judith like a charmingly parasitic suckerfish and gets to work coming up with an internet program for matching their band of balding Romeos with their prospective trophy girlfriends. As you can imagine, given that the name of the damn film is Temptation, Harley and Judith end up consummating their god-forsaken lust. The only problem is that it takes Perry ¾ of the film to finally have them do the adulterous deed, choosing instead to spend the bulk of the movie beating us over the head with an endless procession of marital stereotypes preceding Judith’s fall from grace, including, but not limited to, the “I’m sorry I forgot your birthday,” the “my man watches football instead of watching me,” and the “we never have sex in interesting, yet uncomfortable places.”
To be frank,Tyler Perry’s plot development is about as sophisticated as a re-run of CHIPS, so it’s normally best to take these things in stride because you’ll pull a hamstring trying to run around all of the inconsistencies in his storytelling. I have no idea what a relationship counselor would be doing at a dating sight for wealthy plutocrats, especially when said counselor is a 26 years old without any experience or licensure, but the movie makes clear that Tyler Perry hasn’t a clue either and that the story itself is merely window dressing for the delivery of his peculiar brand of Southern Christianity. And, really, it’s a shame Perry didn’t put a more spirited effort into the content of the film because most of the acting in the film was quite good. Lance Gross gave a workmanlike performance as the movie’s lovable cuckold, while Robbie Jones made for a convincing and perverse Satan in this contrived allegory of fidelity. For her part, Jurnee Smollett-Bell carried the load of the leading lady well until Judith made her turn to the dark side at the end of the movie, at which point she became seemingly possessed by the spirit of a B-movie actress, stumbling around in a bleary eyed trance and acting like the drug addict in a 1930s public service announcement. Of course, that could be due in part to the fact that Perry has Judith become a full fledged cokehead and materialistic super-whore in the span of what looks like, at most, 72 hours. Hell, even Brandy Norwood of Moesha and The Boy is Mine fame does a passable job as the mysterious pharmacy tech running away from an unknown sordid past2.
Ultimately, the blame for this celluloid embarrassment falls squarely on the franchise himself and the reckless way he vilifies and ostracizes millions of Americans through an ignorance inexcusable in a grown man of substance and character. I went to see Temptation because I had heard stirrings that the film was grossly insensitive to certain populations and wanted to see if the uproar was warranted. For 95% of the movie, I was convinced that this was an overreaction from a subsection of society that has become rightfully sensitive to stigmatization—that they were but one part of Tyler Perry’s stereotypical portrayal of the vast majority of society. Then the turn came. It came swiftly and with malice and it burned with a cold dark flame that comes about only as the result of accumulated prejudice. It was the realization that the man that Judith had cuckolded her husband for—the man who was but a shallow substitute for the devil himself—was HIV positive. There is no mistaking the intent of the events that follow. The HIV-infected Beelzebub buys our fallen heroine Gucci and Prada and drives her about in his red Ferrari while feeding her cocaine like it was the manna of hell and luxuriating with her in the strobe-lit bowels of a satanic nightclub. Naturally, our HIV+ villain is jealous and vengeful, so he grows possessive of Judith, ultimately beating her in a coke-filled rage. And, of course, our knight in white satin comes back to rescue his sinful wife and tackle the evil Harvey through a plate-glass window before taking her home to recover. By the end of the film, Judith is getting her HIV medications from her pharmacist ex-husband, who is greeted by his gorgeous new wife and three blessed young children as Judith walks out alone, lucky to be living but cursed for her infidelity.
There is no mistaking Tyler Perry’s message here: HIV is God’s punishment for straying from His path and falling prey to the allure of infidelity and passions of the flesh. It is a message that pervades many pockets of the African-American community and which runs rampant throughout the South, where half of all new HIV infections are found today. It is part and parcel of a belief structure that justifies the condemnation of homosexuality through the recitation of scripture, quoting that noxious line in Leviticus about men lying with men and conveniently ignoring that Christ tells us that the commandment to be held above all others is that which instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is no love in Temptation, only base judgment and self-righteous condemnation that can do no more than shun those in our lives who need love most. What, Mr. Perry, has ever led you to believe that the best way to bring sheep back into your flock is to beat them down with your crook and remind them of how bad they’ve been? This is how we cleave ourselves in two and come to believe that what we talk about in the forest is not suitable for talk in the market-place. This is how secrets stay and prejudice swells. This is where disease lives.
1What really gets me about Perry’s screenwriting is that it literally doesn’t add up. For instance, Judith and Brice are the same age and got married before college, where we have to assume they went to the same schools. Now, if they went to the same schools, what the hell happened when they were at grad school? After undergrad, it normally takes 4 years to receive a Doctor of Pharmacy degree (in rare cases 3 years) and, while we are never told specifically what degree Judith got, we can assume that she either got her Masters of Social Work degree or an Masters of Arts/Sciences in Counseling, both of which take 2 years on average. My question is, what the hell happened for the two years that Judith was out of school and Brice was still in school? Am I the only one who thinks about these things? I should probably stop now.
2Not all of the cast is fully excused from blame as Kim Kardashian was astonishingly bad in her role as Judith’s catty, image-obsessed “friend”, which especially troubling because she was basically just asked to play herself. To say her performance was wooden is an insult to wood.