Tyler Perry's HIV: Punishment For Your Sins
Less a film than a morality play, Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor presents HIV as a "sinner's disease."
Do not read this if you plan on seeing Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor. But also — do not see Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.
I'm going to spoil the ending, because it reflects the film's reprehensible point of view. And I'm not the first to do so. Mike Ryan at The Huffington Post wrote about the big reveal in his piece, "'Tyler Perry's Temptation': Let's Talk About That Ending." Yes, let's. It's definitely more interesting than Kim Kardashian's glorified cameo of a role.
Temptation follows Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a woman trapped in a passionless marriage with her childhood sweetheart Brice (Lance Gross). An aspiring marriage counselor, Judith works for millionaire matchmaker Janice (Vanessa Williams, with an absurd French accent). When Janice assigns Judith to work with sexy internet mogul Harley (Robbie Jones), Judith and Harley find themselves drawn to each other. And therein lies the temptation.
As Judith and Harley begin a hot and heavy affair, Brice struggles to win her back, getting support from his coworker Melinda (Brandy Norwood). In a dramatic twist telegraphed early on, we learn that Harley was Melinda's abusive ex-boyfriend — leading Brice to break into Harley's house and rescue Judith, lying bruised and beaten in the bathtub. An almost happy ending, but here's the thing: Harley has HIV, which he gave to Melinda. And now so does Judith.
As Ryan points out, Temptation's conclusion is problematic, to say the least. Whether or not one condones cheating on a spouse, the implication that a person deserves HIV is horrifying. What's worse, however, is that Perry has written Temptation as a morality play, in which "Man begins in innocence, Man falls into temptation, Man repents and is saved." As Madea would say, "Hallelujer."
Like Perry's other movies, there is nothing subtle about Temptation. It's not just the sin of Lust that Perry condemns: Throughout Temptation, we're also schooled on Greed (as Judith consumes more and more of what Harley buys for her), Pride (as she begins to show off her body in more revealing outfits), Wrath (Harley's violent temper), and Envy (Harley covets another man's wife). Judith's God-fearing mother Sarah (Ella Joyce) even refers to Harley as the Devil. The traditional morality play presents Satan not as a symbol but as a literal being, battling with God for a person's soul.
Viewed in this context, it's not simply that Judith deserves HIV, but that it's a "sinner's disease." HIV — at least, HIV the plot device — is Tyler Perry's punishment for our sins.
On its own, the reveal that three of the characters have HIV could be dismissed as a silly (albeit tacky) soap opera twist. The problem here is that Tyler Perry insists on making Temptation a message movie. In fact, the bulk of the film is a story about how Judith, now a marriage counselor, is relating to one of her clients. After hearing how it all played out, the client declares she will end her affair and go back to her husband. She doesn't want to get HIV, after all.
How else to read the film, then, but as a condemnation of sin — and of those suffering from HIV? In the context of Temptation, it is very much a "sinner's disease," something that happens because a person did something morally wrong. Even Melinda, an ostensible "good girl," blames her HIV on choosing to stay with a man she knew was cheating on her. "I'm accepting my part in it," she concedes. Judith never makes the same declaration, but her resignation at the end of the film — coupled with the fact that she's now left to pray with her mother as Brice moves on with his new family — speaks to the same mentality: "I deserved what happened to me."
This isn't even the first time that Tyler Perry has used HIV to drive a point home. In For Colored Girls, he gave us Jo, played by Janet Jackson. She contracted HIV from her husband's infidelity with other men. I won't even go into the film's homophobia, another recurring issue in Perry's movies, but the basic idea is the same: Jo's husband gets HIV because he cheated on his wife. And Jo herself is apparently culpable, because she knew her husband was gay and chose to ignore it. It's the same as Melinda's sin in Temptation — sticking with the wrong man, despite knowing better.
For Colored Girls is based on Ntozake Shange's 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and most of the film is a word-for-word adaptation. But the HIV storyline is Perry's own creation, the virus having not existed in the mid-'70s. This is his particular preoccupation, then, a trope he has now used twice in a demeaning and shameful manner. No one "earns" HIV by sinning, and the suggestion is both archaic and offensive.
At least For Colored Girls gave us more to work with: Shange's play is a complex and thought-provoking work, and some of that comes through despite Perry's meddling. But Temptation is pure morality play: Woman begins in innocence, Woman falls into temptation, and Woman is saved — she cuts her hair short, wears an outfit that covers her up entirely, and regularly attends church. Judith is, as Sarah calls her, a "fallen woman," and that demands punishment. "God's not pleased with you, daughter," Sarah promises. Only after Judith is left battered, alone, and infected with a potentially deadly virus can she truly repent.
Perry's audience is expansive: He's one of the most successful filmmakers working today. Temptation made $22.3 million this past weekend — and while some of that can be attributed to those ironically interested in Kim Kardashian's serious acting debut, many of the film's attendees believe in Perry's sincere message. In an interview with The 700 Club, he says that in his movies, "there is an anointing that is reaching people who would never go to a church." The goal, then, is to spread Perry's gospel to the unsaved masses.
But Temptation's gospel has dangerous implications: HIV is a punishment, HIV patients deserve their condition, and the only path to salvation is a chaste, churchgoing, heterosexual lifestyle. Perry may believe that he is doing good with films like this. When asked where he gets his inspiration, Perry explains, "I pray about it. I say, 'OK, where am I going next?' The family dynamic is in so much trouble." He goes on to talk about divorce, but on a larger scale, his films seem to exist as his response to America's "crumbling morality."
That Tyler Perry wants to proselytize is his business — I may not agree that premarital sex and low-cut blouses are a sin, but I accept the difference of opinion. What I can't condone is this persistent return to HIV, a virus that begs for compassion and understanding, not judgment. Outside of Temptation, people with HIV are people, not walking sins. Their desire to live long lives on their own terms may conflict with Perry's morality, but it's still their right. By offering a version of reality in which people are either Good or Evil, Tyler Perry's soapbox may do more harm than good.