When Diary Of A Mad Black Woman became one of 2005's least-expected blockbusters, it inspired a flurry of articles about how writer-director-star Tyler Perry had seemingly come out of nowhere. Of course, Perry was an unproven quantity only to mainstream America. For African-Americans, the commercial soundness of Perry's unwieldy but crowd-pleasing formula—a strange blend of kitchen-sink melodrama, Christian sermonizing, earnest sentimentality, and broad slapstick—had been proven in a series of theatrical smashes that lurked far beneath the white media's radar.
Madea's Family Reunion kept the Perry money train rolling along while moving the lucrative Madea franchise in a more dramatic direction. With Daddy's Little Girls, Perry takes his biggest risk to date, abandoning the Madea character that made him rich and famous and dialing down the comedy slightly, but otherwise sticking to his tried-and-true template. Idris Elba stars as a goodhearted single father who falls in love with Gabrielle Union, the high-strung attorney fighting to win him custody of his three beloved daughters. Tasha Smith co-stars as Elba's ex-wife and the film's sneering villain, an evil succubus whose life lessons for her mortified daughters involve the importance of selling drugs at a young age and the necessity of viciously beating subordinates when they come up short. Smith lives with a glowering drug dealer who's like a less-wholesome version of Suge Knight, and no doubt clubs baby seals in his spare time.
Daddy's Little Girls is a film divided against itself: Elba and Union's ingratiatingly low-key romance clashes violently with the purple melodrama of the custody trial. Smith's one-dimensional villainy makes the trial a battle between good and evil in their starkest terms, even before Perry adds rape, a car accident/fistfight, and an outraged citizenry ready to rise up in anger against Smith and her boyfriend. These developments are unfortunate, since the leads' romance compellingly illustrates how class can be nearly as formidable an obstacle to budding relationships as race. It's telling that Elba and Union's courtship has more in common with interracial romances like Something Else than buppie rom-coms like Love Jones. While its look at interclass romance among African-Americans and the struggles of a working-class single father is fresh and vital, the heavy-handed execution isn't.