It's a bit silly to talk about a director's sophomore feature as representing all sorts of breaks from his customary style; but hindsight permits us to observe that 2007's Daddy's Little Girls, the second film directed by Tyler Perry and the third he wrote, is something of an outlier. It is the first of his features that he did not act in, which makes it necessarily the first not to feature his Madea character; it is the first one not based upon one of his stage plays; it is the first to hinge on a male protagonist; it is the first that is strictly a drama, without any trace of the sometimes desperate comic relief of his earlier films; and perhaps as a direct result of the rest of these firsts, it was his first film to underperform at the box office, and remains the lowest-grossing work of his cinema career.

I'm not sure if this feels altogether fair or not, but this much is certain: Daddy's Little Girl is confounding in a way that Madea's Family Reunion is not. Family Reunion is weird as hell, sure, but in a way that's mostly straightforward: you get where it's going and why, only it takes some might strange paths to get there. Daddy's Little Girls, on the other hand, is a mass of conflicting impulses and half-formed ideas, though it also has individual elements far more successful than Perry's earlier work; it is at once a huge step forward and a huge collapse backwards. My suspicion is that this was partially because Perry had absorbed enough of the criticism of his two earlier film productions to want to prove his maturity as an artist, only when the rubber hit the road, it turned out that he wasn't a mature artist, at least not in the way his harshest critics might have wanted.

More to the point, I think that with this film, Perry was lashing out against the charges that he was perpetuating crude racial stereotypes by responding, and not without a hint of snottiness, "I am too black!", and so he fills up the script - which I hasten to remind you, was newly-conceived at this time - with authorial tracts that sometimes even manage to feel like something that the characters might actually be inclined to say at that moment, all of them designed not so much to answer the specific charge that he was running a latter-day minstrel show, as to establish that he was, at any rate, sensitive to issues of African-American identity, and sensitive to the damage caused by racist caricature. And thus having inoculated himself against any criticisms ever again, he makes his antagonist a shrill harpy of an ex-wife so single-mindedly driven by the desire to acquire wealthy and live in tacky surroundings that she attempts to force her teenage daughter into whoredom.

The whole thing is such a frazzled combination of overt messaging on the one hand, and garish pandering on the other, that the film ends up fighting against itself almost constantly. If, somehow, a white filmmaker had been responsible for directing this, he would never, ever have been able to escape the charge of racism, nor should he. It has an unmistakable tang of "Well of course minorities are worthy of respect and consideration, but, seriously, look at how these people act!" It doesn't help matters that, while nearly everything in the film is as sober as sober can be, with hushed lighting and somber line deliveries all over the place, whenever the characters identified, frequently in dialogue, as the "disreputable" sort of black people - the golddiggers, the drug dealers, the gangsta wannabes, the perpetual adolescents - they are played 100% for broad comedy of the Madea school, and just to make sure we get it, Perry has the mature, upstanding characters respond to their cartoon adversaries with exaggerated eye-rolling and grimaces.

And on the other side of the coin, Daddy's Little Girls is unquestionably a more accomplished piece of filmmaking than Madea's Family Reunion: the transitions are smoother, the scenes are assembled with much less fumbling around with camera angles that refuse to work, the acting doesn't swing from pole to pole so broadly; though this last may have less to do with Perry's newfound skill with directing actors, and more with the quality of the actors he was able to afford this time around: the two lead roles are played by Idris Elba, who had by this point already completed his extrarordinary run on HBO's The Wire, and Gabrielle Union, one of the many talented black actresses given a rare chance to actually show off how could she could be, even hamstrung by Perry's overwritten, underdeveloped scenarios (if there is nothing else we can thank the filmmaker for, there is always this; but I'll have much more to say about that when I get around to For Colored Girls). So it does, in a sense, represent Perry's new maturity, just not in the direction it needed to if he was going to rise above the perception that he was a self-exploiting black clown, a perception that frankly, he has earned several times over.

As for the actual plot of this film, it is once again pretty much hokum: Elba plays Monty, a mechanic living in Atlanta and just barely able to keep his three beloved daughters safe and fed in the heart of the ghetto. Union is Julia, the state's only black female legal partner, who one day takes the advice of her assistant Maya (Melinda Williams), Monty's neighbor, to hire the mechanic as her driver. This ends poorly when Monty takes a lengthy detour to the emergency room, where his daughters have been rushed following an ultimately harmless accident, and he is promptly fired; but this has already planted the seeds of doubt in Julia's mind, that the mythical Decent Black Man that she has been hunting for might actually exist, deep within the ghetto that she has for so long written off as the home exclusively of cartoon gangbangers with funny speech patterns. Do both Julia and Monty get to use this situation as a chance to spout off about how they feel about their skin color, and the sense of community they long to feel with all black people, if only that community could recover its dignity? Absolutely. Do they, and by extension the film, unconsciously delegitimise ghetto culture, with all its trappings and forms of communication? Pretty much, yeah. Does Julia discover that her adherence to class structure is blocking her from finding true love with this smart, articulate, spiritual mechanic? Duh. Does she come riding in to help when Monty's Gorgon of an ex-wife, Jennifer (Tasha Smith), attempts to spirit them away? Obviously, though you wouldn't know that since I haven't mentioned the custody subplot yet. But it's that kind of movie.

Of course, church figures in there - this is a Tyler Perry movie - but not as organically as it does in his previous films, nor with the same functionality. In essence, the church exists as a place for Monty to hear sermons that comment on his situation and form something of an echo chamber for his conscience; there isn't the same "trust in Christ and all is well" moralising that rounded out both Madea's Family Reunion and Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which is probably for the best, given how dramatically unsound it left both of those scripts. No, the moralising here is largely secular, and largely self-defeating, given that every single clarion call for black dignity (which I hope we can all agree is a good thing) is nestled inside the context of racial stereotypes that wouldn't have felt out of place in a particularly lazy '30s movie, if you could depict hookers and druglords in a '30s movie (which of course you could, but not, like, really).

I did mention, at one point, that I wasn't going to go too far down the rabbit hole of race theory in this retrospective, being as I am, basically, the whitest white person ever (the "herbal tea and Beethoven before bed" kind of white). But it's just so damn fascinating to see it working in this film, right there on the surface; Tyler Perry remains a wildly unsubtle filmmaker, but where the first two Madea pictures are little more than tragicomic morality plays with the delicacy of a sack of bricks, Daddy's Little Girls is legitimately trying to dig into some complex sociology that 40 years of post-Civil Rights Era thought hasn't been able to make sense of, and seeing a filmmaker of Perry's arch-populist bent try to get his head around that is sublimely weird just in its failure. Once again, he failed here to actually make a movie that was effective at its stated goals, but the mess left behind is infinitely more captivating for its outrageous ungainliness than a great many more proficient filmmakers have ever been able to manage.