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It’s a cliche to say that independent films are “critic-driven,” that they rely on good reviews to combat Hollywood-size P&A budgets and succeed in the marketplace. And while Filmmaker doesn’t run reviews per se, it’s true that a kind of “critical sensibility” informs our editorial decisions. At the same time, we do try to cover what’s going on in the independent scene, so that sometimes means that a film we’re not crazy about shows up in our pages.

But I, Filmmaker, and most every other member of the so-called critical establishment have missed the boat entirely on a trio of recent indie-film successes, making me wonder whether “thumbs up” from the reviewers should automatically be considered an indicator of success in the indie arena. Woman, Thou Art Loosed (Magnolia Pictures, $7 million domestic gross), What the #$*! Do We Know!? (Roadside Attractions, gross $11 million), and now Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman (Lions Gate, gross-to-date $29 million) are three are niche-market pictures that survived generally poor reviews to become big hits. Directed by little-known filmmakers, the pictures connected with audiences unserved by Hollywood as well as the supposedly alternative independent scene.

Variety has an article about the Diary… phenom quoting William Morris agent Charles King:

“‘Some people are still clueless,’ Perry’s agent, Charles King of the William Morris Agency, said Feb. 28, when the calls starting rolling in. ‘People keep calling, saying, ‘Who is he? I want to see his movie.’

Many callers were execs who just three weeks ago were dismissive when King brought up the subject of Perry.

Yet in fickle Hollywood, today Perry is mentioned in the same breath as Mel Gibson, Michael Moore and the filmmakers behind The Blair Witch Project — i.e., producers of unusual films that, against all expectations, hit it big.”

Variety goes on to quote Perry: “I’ve never set out to write anything for critics or to cross-over.”

Of course, the recent precursor of this new trend — films emerging from a mainstream critical blindspot — was My Big Fat Greek Wedding but, ironically, the sheer magnitude of that film’s success allowed the press to categorize it as a pop-cult phenomenon and not a film. But with each weekend bringing on a new “came from nowhere” sensation, at least one reviewer is beginning to interrogate his own critical prejudices.

Revisiting Diary of a Mad Black Woman after receiving volumes of angry mail following his negative review, Roger Ebert doesn’t change his opinion (“I’ve been reviewing movies for a long time, and I can’t think of one that more dramatically shoots itself in the foot”) but he does try to move beyond the charges of his critics (most of whom say something like “White people don’t get it”) to the aesthetic issues that guided his opinion.

Writes Ebert:

“But the outpouring of dissent about Diary has me thinking in another direction. The assumption beneath my review was that a movie should discover the correct tone for its material, and stick to it. I was grabbed at the outset by the plight of the Kimberley Elise character, was moved by her despair, was touched by the character of her mother, played by Cecily Tyson, and I recoiled every time Madea came charging in like a train wreck.

“Yet the most successful film industry on earth, India’s Bollywood, deliberately mixes genres. ‘You get everything in one film,’ my Mumbai friend Uma de Cuhna told me. Diary of a Mad Black Woman provides melodrama, romance, scandal, the escapism of a lavish lifestyle, a message of forgiveness, and the larger-than-life Madea, whose pot-smoking doesn’t seem to bother the Christian church audiences who make up a large part of Perry’s fan base.

“It’s not supposed to be all of a piece, told with a consistent tone. It’s more like a variety show. And Madea is no more supposed to be a ‘real’ African-American grandmother than Dame Edna Everage is supposed to be a ‘real’ Australian housewife.

“Okay, I get it. I refuse to accept the theory that I am racist because I disliked the film (many of the Yahoo messages attack the notion that racism belongs in the discussion). But I do realize that Tyler Perry is under the radar of the white-dominated media…”

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