by Veronica Miller, theGrio
After catching an afternoon showing of Tyler Perry’s Temptation on its opening day, I left the movie completely annoyed.
I wasn’t just annoyed by the sophomoric dialogue, or the highly-predictable-yet-highly-improbable plot.
And I wasn’t just annoyed by the poor editing and overwrought melodrama (though all of those things gave me plenty to be annoyed by).
What sent me over the edge was the heavy-handed punishment of a female character who happened to be interested in sex, and the implication that the rest of her days on Earth were doomed to loneliness and regret. Oh. And HIV.
Warning: Major movie spoilers ahead
Tyler Perry’s Temptation is a so-called “erotic thriller,” which explores what happens when a married woman pursues an extramarital affair. The main character, Judith (played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell), is a small-town girl who moves to Washington, D.C., with her childhood-sweetheart-turned-husband, Brice (played by Lance Gross). Six years into their marriage, Judith grows restless and feels unappreciated, bored with Brice’s 10-year-plan and annoyed that he’s been too aloof to remember her birthday.
Enter Harley, a wealthy — like, really really really wealthy — social media entrepreneur, who’s looking to invest in the matchmaking service where Judith works. Glances are exchanged, banter is traded, pickup lines are dropped, and it’s not too long be Judith is resisting-but-not-really-resisting Harley’s advances.
Eventually, Judith leaves Brice at home to gallivant around town at black-light parties and snort coke with Harley. (Because that’s what women do when they have affairs with rich men. They go to black-light parties and snort coke.)
But let me fast-forward and tell you how this story ends. Brice, upset that his wife has left him, seeks solace in his friend Melinda (played by Brandy Norwood). Melinda’s been on the run from a stalking ex (who we easily figure out is Harley), and Brice asks her if she thinks she’ll ever find love again. There’s an awkward pause, and then Melinda reveals she’s HIV-positive. “So no,” she concludes. She will not find love again. Because in Tyler Perry’s world, people living with HIV are doomed to live a life of lovelessness and solitude.
When Melinda shares that Harley is the ex who gave her HIV, Brice panics. Suddenly, he must save Judith. Judith must be saved from the HIV! Brice races to Harley’s apartment, finds Judith beaten up and left in a bathtub, and carries her home (not without throwing Harley through a window and punching him a few times).
The future isn’t so bright
For a moment, there’s a glimmer of hope — maybe the broken couple will reunite through this trauma, maybe Brice’s undying love for Judith will heal her battered face and gloss over her bad decisions, and maybe the pair will settle into married bliss once again. Except…
Tyler Perry catapults us an indeterminate number of years into the future, showing a hobbled, bespectacled and homely Judith limping to Brice’s pharmacy to get her HIV medication. As she’s leaving, we meet Brice’s new (unsettlingly-younger) wife and young son, a picture-perfect snapshot of what Judith could have had, had she not messed around and gotten the HIV.
We’re left with a shot of Judith walking away, “to church” she says, hobbling down a nondescript sidewalk in D.C.
It’s all entirely too insulting.
The vilification of women and HIV victims
I could spend days talking about the way Tyler Perry vilifies and punishes women with any speck of ambition, education or sexual desire in his movies (and I have).
But the “shocker” HIV storyline in “Temptation” was egregiously repulsive, implying that people who live with HIV (as over one million people in the U.S. do) are either a) being punished for some sort of iniquity, and/or b) will live a loveless, lonely life of despair and regret.
The worst part is that Temptation treats Judith’s HIV infection as a modern-day version of leprosy, and presents her hobbling with the disease as a reasonable resolution to the story, a justified sealing of her fate. Note that Brice remains uninfected, and that Harley simply vanishes, presumably flying away in his jet to infect another unsuspecting young woman.
Perry’s message is targeted specifically at black women — live the way a good little Christian girl should, or be eternally damned with disease.
I can’t say it enough. It’s insulting.
A mentality that’s stuck in the 90s
For one, Perry seem stuck in the mid-1990s, when HIV truly was a death sentence for those who were infected, before medical technology advanced to its current state.
The film also implies that an HIV diagnosis means there’s no longer a need to dress fashionably, appear attractive or embody any kind of joy. It sounds superficial on the surface, but look at the contrast — pre-HIV Judith was lively and passionate, with long flowing hair, a stylish wardrobe and an impish glint in her eye.
But after being diagnosed, Judith is transformed into a homely “church lady,” hair pulled back, glasses too large for her face, her entire body swallowed by a large, drab grey overcoat.
The implication: Women with HIV lose all desire (or any need) to look and feel like women.
HIV is not a ‘boogeyman disease’
In Perry’s world, Judith’s new life apparently only involves church, picking up medication, and advising other young married women not to make her mistakes. This flies in the face of the reality of many HIV patients who document their live full, exciting lives in support communities such as TheBody.com, and those who continue tireless work as awareness advocates.
Perry’s use of HIV as a moralistic plot device undercuts the decades-long effort remove the stigma of the virus. And seeing how African-Americans, by far, are disproportionately affected by HIV, it’s arguably irresponsible for Perry — a filmmaker known for his influence with African-Americans audiences — to continue to portray HIV as a life-ending “boogeyman disease” that only affects “bad” or deserving people. I can only imagine how insulting Perry’s treatment is to HIV awareness warriors like Marvelyn Brown, Rae Lewis-Thornton, and Hydeia Broadbent.
Countless other stars and luminaries in the black community — Alicia Keys, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Blair Underwood and Magic Johnson, among others — have worked for years to increase awareness and education and provide support for HIV patients.
They understand its impact on black Americans, and they’ve used their platforms to advance the conversation about the virus, not to stifle it. It’s high time for Tyler Perry to catch up.