‘Divorce in the Black’ Is Tyler Perry’s Worst Movie Yet

Quantrell Colbert/Prime Video
Quantrell Colbert/Prime Video

Tyler Perry is a fascinating case study. Despite constant critical dismissal, he’s one of the most successful filmmakers in America, consistently working with mid-range budgets but managing to gross more than $1 billion. His fan base is one Hollywood routinely ignores—chiefly Black, Christian women—and Perry makes his films with his proud Christian values at the forefront. That critical brush-off, while often frustrating, will be back in full force for his latest film, Tyler Perry’s Divorce in the Black. It’s fully warranted. His first release for Prime Video—and the first of a four-film deal with Amazon—is atrocious.

Perry opens Divorce in the Black with one of his most outrageous scenes to date, which is saying a lot given he famously had Madea attack a fast-food worker in Madea’s Big Happy Family. A preacher (Richard Lawson) delivers a sermon at the funeral of one of the Bertran boys, a family of no-good miscreants, according to the minister. But his daughter, Ava (Meagan Good) is married to one of them, Dallas (Cory Hardrict). Things get so ugly that the Bertrans decide to leave the funeral, but they’re not leaving without the body. Sending everything into a tailspin, they remove their brother's corpse from the casket and take him home in the back of their truck. It’s poorly written, over-the-top schlock, but it's also wildly entertaining. Sadly, Divorce in the Black never gets close to this delirious camp again.

That opening is mostly a red herring, as Divorce in the Black is really about Megan and Dallas, whose marriage has been struggling. Ava is successful, loving, and supportive, but Dallas is a succubus that toils in misery. At dinner with their friends, he loudly announces his desire for a divorce, which sends Ava into a tailspin. Except Perry never shows Dallas as anything but beneath contempt, so it’s hard to get fully on board with Ava’s suffering, as it’s abundantly clear to everyone watching that Dallas is terrible, and that Ava getting divorced is unmistakably a very good thing.

Space for nuance is desperately needed. That’s never been Perry’s specialty—his most egregious movie, Temptations: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, punished its main character with HIV for having an affair. But Divorce in the Black is practically crying out for it. Dallas is a thinly sketched cartoon villain, a constantly raised voice that spits venom. Ava, meanwhile, is a benevolent angel transported directly from heaven itself. Perry’s script never allows an opportunity for its characters to be anything but symbols of good and evil, and that’s all Ava and Dallas end up being. Perry’s moral code is frustratingly rigid: If someone does bad things, they must be a bad person. There’s no room for negotiation or nuance. It’s not only holier-than-thou—it’s also boring writing.

Meagan Good in Tyler Perry’s Divorce in the Black.

Meagan Good

Quantrell Colbert/Prime Video

A story about a woman leaving an abusive relationship and coming into her own requires so much more than Perry is willing to give. While he’s best known for his Madea comedies, his forays into sincere drama have yielded impressive results. Good Deeds, For Colored Girls, and I Can Do Bad All By Myself are among Perry’s best works because there’s an emotional sincerity and tonal balance to them. But Divorce in the Black whiplashes between the earnest and the ridiculous, creating uncomfortable mismatches in tone. Perry can’t seem to decide between being sincere and embracing his schlockier fare like A Fall From Grace or Acrimony, settling instead for a queasy mixture of both.

It’s difficult to get noteworthy performances from characters pigeonholed into a single emotion or trait, but Good gives Ava an impressive dimension. She exudes charisma and charm, and there’s genuine pathos as Ava strives toward forging a new life. Good has been great for a long time, and while she can’t save Divorce, her performance is a reminder that she’s more than worthy of leading roles.

Meagan Good and Debbi Morgan in Tyler Perry’s Divorce in the Black.

Meagan Good and Debbi Morgan

Quantrell Colbert/Prime Video

Divorce in the Black frustratingly leans into all of Tyler Perry’s worst instincts as a filmmaker. The script is frustratingly obvious—“You know I’m a straight shooter,” Rona (Taylor Polidore Williams) says immediately after shooting straight, as if the audience needs to be spoon-fed the most basic character details. More stifling is the encroaching melodrama, which happens without rhyme or reason. I love melodrama, but it needs a purpose, and it only happens in Divorce in the Black when Perry doesn’t have anywhere else to go, flying directly into outrageousness in lieu of genuine emotional beats. And outrageousness is precisely where the film goes in the third act, with its predictable, tired violence.

It’s a frustrating step back for Perry, who in 2022 released his best film, A Jazzman’s Blues. It was his most visually arresting picture, whereas Divorce in the Black is flat and unadventurous. It looks like it was made for streaming. That’s not a compliment. Its complete lack of curiosity visually is matched by a plot that goes exactly where you’d expect it to, rendering every twist inept because they’re telegraphed long before they happen.

As a filmmaker, Perry has certainly earned thoughtful critical consideration, which he rarely gets. It’s disappointing, then, that Divorce in the Black is Perry at his most inexplicable, torn between multiple worn-out ideas.

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