Today will be light, as your host is sick and doped up on Claritin.
I have, however, been thinking about the chitlin circuit. (What do you do when you’re trying to sleep?) The chitlin circuit, for those who don’t know, consists of traveling plays—usually, but not always, melodramas—that are written, directed, and produced by black folks. The plays themselves almost always feature broad humor, easy stereotypes, swooping life lessons (generally a “Get right with God” sort of theme), and songs. At its best, chitlin circuit theater—be it stand-up comedy, drama, or musicals—combines the crowd-pleasing theatrics of opera with the atmosphere of a downhome church revival. It’s contemporary vaudeville, enormously popular with black theatergoers and almost entirely unknown to the white mainstream.
Roger Ebert caused a stir two weeks ago with his panning of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, a film that is an adaptation of a popular chitlin’ circuit play by Tyler Perry. The pan doesn’t seem to matter—as of today, the Internet Movie Database notes that the movie has grossed $50 million.
This is not unusual. Critics usually pan chitlin circuit-based films, if they’re even aware of them in the first place, and the movies end up making a killing, anyway. Last year’s Woman, Thou Art Loosed opened to dismal reviews but made nearly $7 million—not bad for a movie that cost half of that amount to produce and market. The one exception that I can think of is Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy. It also flew under the radar—it cost $3 million and made $38 million; probably the biggest financial success of Lee’s career—but was well-received by critics.
Anyway, Ebert’s negative review prompted more letters than his reviews of the far more controversial and noticed The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. The deluge was such that he felt the need to respond. What’s going on here? PopMatters’s Mark Reynolds breaks it down, giving the sanest, smartest response I’ve seen. Please read it.