If people didn't like seeing movies where African-American comedians dress up like feisty old ladies and beat some sense into their troubled friends and family, studios wouldn't keep making them. Fans of Tyler Perry's Madea franchise won't be disappointed with the 2009 installment Madea Goes to Jail, which finds the tough-talking matriarch in the slammer following yet another temper-fueled brush with the law. Always reactionary but still semi-justified, the latest addition to her rap sheet stems from an incident in a K-Mart parking lot, where she retaliated against a rude parking-space-stealing suburbanite by trashing the woman's convertible with a stolen forklift. Most of the movie, however, concentrates on a different story.
That story centers around District Attorney Josh Hardaway (Derek Luke), who is doing quite well for himself; he's engaged to another DA, the beautiful Linda (Ion Overman), and has a successful career in the courtroom. However, his less carefree past comes back to haunt him one day, when childhood friend Candace (Keshia Knight Pulliam, whom viewers might remember as Rudy Huxtable from The Cosby Show) shows up at court on prostitution charges. Like Josh, Candace was once on the track toward making it out of the ghetto and finding happiness and prosperity, but Josh alludes to an event in their past where she lost all of that, and he feels responsible for how she is now: drug-addicted, and clearly burdened with trauma and pain.
The rest of the movie follows Josh trying to help his friend, and Candace struggling to forgive and forget the horrendous memories that continue to shape the way she lives her life. Of course, that somber journey is peppered with Madea's wild-and-wacky comic relief, as well as her simple (and usually harsh) wisdom that there are countless people with stories like Candace's, and that, while it isn't fair, her only choice is to let go of the sadness and anger and make something of herself. The depiction of Candace's life on the streets is tame by PG-13 standards, but it's pretty graphic as family-oriented movies go -- she's shown being beaten and choked, and later wakes up naked with her assailant lying on top of her. There are also verbal references to a horrid sexual assault, but these elements are all vital to the film's basic premise, which is that this kind of violence against women happens every day. Perry has a message for his community that those who are struggling have to take responsibility for themselves, and those who have already struggled must help others. With Madea Goes to Jail, Perry isn't trying to win any Oscars, he's just trying to get that message across to his audience -- and if he can draw them in with a little comedy, he'll do it.