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Diary of A Mad, Black, Moral Imagination

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

Diary of A Mad, Black, Moral Imagination:

The Role of Hegelian Dialectics in the Gospel Performances in

Holiday Heart (2000) and Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005)

My moral imagination was shaped on my living room floor. Every 2-3 weeks like clockwork, I would find myself sitting in between my grandmother’s knees as she braided my hair. Each time we would go through the same ritual. I would find the fluffiest pillow to use as a seat cushion, grab my grandmother’s ilarun[1], and we would watch a movie. From there, my mother would sit close by to offer a helping hand, or threatening voice when I wouldn’t sit still. With my mother, grandmother and I sitting in front of the TV, these moments were periods of discussion and reflection pertaining to the chosen movie at hand. We would discuss the resilience of the Von Trapp family as they flee to the hills of Austria, or the importance of education to the beat Principal Joe Clark supporting the students of East Side High. Two movies that we would regularly watch on BET[2] during my hair braiding sessions were Robert Townsend’s Holiday Heart (2000)[3]and my mom’s favorite, Darren Grant’s Diary of A Mad Black Woman (2005).[4] Holiday Heart follows the story of its titular protagonist Holiday Heart, a devout Christian pianist by day and successful drag queen by night. In the midst of grieving his deceased partner, Holiday unexpectedly meets a twelve-year-old girl named Nikki and her mother Wanda who struggles with substance abuse. Out of the kindness of his heart and extremely empathy for Nikki, Holiday takes them in and becomes a stable, loving parental figure for Nikki. Together the trio navigate their traumas and find a new sense of a family. On its face, Diary of a Mad Black Woman starkly contrasts Holiday Heart. Its titular character is Mad black[5] woman Helen McCarter. After being married to the extremely wealthy lawyer, Charles McCarter for 18 years, Charles gets fed up with the charade of their marriage and violently kicks her out of the house and moves in his mistress to whom he’s already had two children with behind Helen’s back. Needless to say, Helen is mad. But her anger is put to the test when Charles is rendered paralyzed after getting shot and Helen is the only one who cares enough to help. Helen is then guided by the wisdom of her devoutly Christian mother and the brashness of the famous Tyler Perry[6] character, Madea. Despite these differences between the two films, they share notable similarities. They are both dramas that touch on themes like mother’s who struggle with addiction, nontraditional forms of love, “broken” families, sassy older black people in colorful dresses, and most poignantly place Gospel performances at the heart of their moral arguments. In this paper I will analyze the role of the Gospel performances in these two films and how it helps to elucidate the filmmakers’ philosophies for overcoming evil. Then putting these ideologies in conversation with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, I will uncover how the Gospel performances, as a film technique, contribute to the shaping of a very (mad) Black moral imagination.

Popularized in the 1930s, gospel music is a genre of Christian music that takes influences from African American spirituals and is deeply rooted in the Black church. The term "the Black church" is an offshoot of "the Negro church," coined by W.E.B. Du Bois[7] and is now used as an umbrella term for the constellation of Christian congregations and denominations that predominantly cater to African Americans. Embedded in the constellation of "the Black church" is a history of resistance, empowerment, and care against the evils that are inflicted on black people through white supremacy. This is evident in how all major political movements for the liberation of Black people have been tied to the Black Church.[8] Concurrently the Black church is also seen as a bastion of black culture and cultural expression. This was summed up in Henry Louis Gates’s The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, when he explained that “The Black Church was the cultural cauldron that Black people created to combat a system designed to crush their spirit.”[9]Gospel music therefore is a form of resistance against evils that was manifest in these crushing settings. This understanding of Gospel Music is central to the role it plays in Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Holiday Heart. In both of these films, it is used as a way to interrogate the villains of their stories and are included in pivotal scenes in order to express the moral arguments of the entire film.

In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Tyler Perry writes his own gospel song that is featured at the turning point of the film for all of the main characters. In this notable scene that is located in the final 10 minutes of the film, Perry’s song “Father Can You Hear Me” is performed by an entirely Black church choir with Helen’s niece singing alongside the pastor and Grammy-award winning Gospel singer, Tamela Mann, as the leads. All the stereotypical characteristics of the Black church are made abundantly clear in this shot. The parishioners are clad in their “Sunday Best” with oversized hats of all colors and paper fans waving to and fro. With the exception of one White couple, the entire congregation is Black. At the pulpit is a Pentecostal style, passionate preacher with the church choir positioned behind him cheering him on. After a brief message about being made whole after being broken the pastor asks, “Is there anything too hard for God?” In a Kuleshovian way, the audience is introduced to a sequence of shots highlighting the responses that the main characters have from the preaching and subsequent choir performance. This scene comes after a long-awaited reconciliation between the protagonist and her villain. Bound to a wheelchair, Charles finally sees the error in his ways and apologizes to Helen for his abuse.[10]

The message of the song deeply resonates with Charles, so much so that even though he is just learning to walk again after being paralyzed, he hobbles to the front of the pulpit to shake the pastor’s hand. This action historically symbolizes someone who is ready to “accept the Lord” into their life and become a Christian. With the gospel performance as a backdrop, the main protagonists and villains literally have a “come to Jesus” moment inside of their local Black church. This effectively centers the Black church as the fulcrum of a character's transformation, or more specifically their Hegelian synthesis. What is striking is how Perry uses this gospel message of “Father Can You Hear Me?” as a double entendre. On one hand, it takes on a Hegelian dialectic function on its own juxtaposed to the synthesis of Helen and Charles’ journeys. This is made clear when the choir sings:

Father just forgive us/

Hear us when we say/

We'll give ya, give ya, give you/

our lives and souls today[11]

At the moment this verse is sung, the attention shifts to a close up of Charles who smiles at the camera in a way that suggests that he resonates with this line. The audience immediately gets the message the filmmakers are alluding to. Charles is taking responsibility for his evil actions especially since he has lost all his wealth and status and now only has his soul to give to God. The shot then shifts to Helen sitting next to Charles looking quite despondent at this same verse. The line represents a double meaning for Helen who throughout the movie struggled with all the things that she had to give up and subsequently rebuild due to the violence of Charles’s pre-paralytic self. One reading of the film is that it is about the constant back and forth between Helen and Charles to move them both to places where they couldn’t have gotten before with their tumultuous relationship. Evil in this film manifests in the distance between them and the “Father” as they commence in this back and forth. This is a classic Hegelian dialectic, and it is intentional that the site of the synthesis is the Black church to the sound of gospel music. It is at their closest point with the Father that they can achieve the apex of their transformations, and the music points to how this transformation is part of the ethos of the Black church.

Conversely, in Holiday Heart, the role of the Black Church is persistent throughout. Holiday makes it clear that his intentions are motivated by his Christian faith. Yet in a way that greatly differs from Diary of A Mad Black Woman, the argumentative purpose of the gospel performance is very intimate and less explicit in this film. The performance is located not immediately in the church but beginning in Holiday’s bedroom. After weeks of not seeing her mother Wanda who fell back into drugs and working the streets, Nikki is distraught and fears that she will experience the same fate as Wanda. As Holiday comforts her she pleads for Holiday to sing her a song to help her pray.[12] Holiday promptly begins to sing the first verse stanza of the hymn “Amazing Grace” in a gospel-style:

Amazing Grace how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found.

Was blind, but now I see.[13]

The performance continues from here, with Holiday’s voice repeating the verse in the background. It then cuts to a montage of Holiday on his knees praying, Nikki attending Sunday School at Holiday’s church, and Nikki getting baptized. These scenes are interspersed with scenes of Holiday looking for Wanda in alleys and abandoned houses. The repetition coupled with these shots together emphasize the importance of gospel to the greater message of the film. Similar to Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Nikki experiences her synthesis in the setting of the Black Church through her dialectical relationship with Wanda. Wanda is clearly positioned as an antagonist in the story. He is a “microwave-b*tch”[14], someone who is always looking for quick fixes and turns to drugs when things don’t go her way. In the most troubling scenes, we see an extremely high, disheveled Wanda willing to prostitute her daughter Nikki and steal her things in exchange for heroin. The fact that the filmmakers chose to repeatedly feature the performance of “Amazing Grace” solidifies its importance to the storyline. The lyrics of this verse capture the main themes of Holiday Heart, as the story follows a group of wrenches who not only tried to be saved by each other but also saved by the grace of God.

There is a clear dialectic that the filmmakers are trying to establish between Nikki and Wanda. The thesis is Nikki’s innocence and youth in conflict with Wanda’s antithetical evils of adulthood. Wanda is bogged down by feeling farther and farther from her dreams of being a writer and turns to drugs in her frustration and Nikki writes in order to navigate her traumas associated with Wanda’s actions. Though Nikki and Wanda are both idealistic, Nikki’s manifest in a form a naivete of being a child whereas Wanda’s is a more insidious idealism that leads her to her own demise at the end of the movie. Together through these conflicting morals the reach a synthesis. Wanda finally takes the steps to get clean though ultimately dies in the process, though Nikki however is forced to mature, and specifically mature through the context of the Black church to Gospel music.

Putting these two films together we can see how their respective filmmakers utilized Gospel performances as modes to emphasize the moral arguments of their movies. Embedded in this utilization is a consonance with Hegelian dialectics that elucidates the method of transformation that their protagonists and antagonists engage in. Evil in both of these films cannot simply be rooted in their antagonists, but also on a more spiritual level. Yet, taking this further, we can see how the use of the Gospel has a specific relationship with contributing to the moral imagination of the Black community at large. As Helen, Charles, Nikki, and Wanda find (and in Wanda’s case gets lost), under the context of the Gospel performances speaks to the historical role that Gospel plays in the Black fight against oppression.

From its start during the onset of the Great Migration, Gospel music challenged the existing church and socio-political establishments.[15] Gospel emerged during a huge wave of black expression and creativity as the American landscape continued to change at the turn of the 20th century. As explained by gospel music expert Kathryn Kemp in her essay “When Gospel Music Sparked A Worship War”, “gospel music spoke to the conditions of black people as they survived in a racist society. During the Great Depression, [gospel] lyrics gave hope to many facing economic hardships.”[16] This history set the foundation that this genre would play for the rest of the century into today. Music for Black creators serves more than just an aesthetic purpose. It is precisely and historically a conduit for Black moral imagination to be expressed. It conversely makes sense, that music plays such a huge role in both films since both Darren Grant and Robert Townsend are both Black filmmakers who are known for also directing music videos and known for using music to tell a story.

Admittedly, when my mother, grandmother, and I used to watch these films on TV, my mother’s main takeaway was not about the relationship between Hegelian dialectics and gospel music in this film. If anything, she would often reference these movies as reminders to not do drugs. However, the fact that so many takeaways can be derived from both films solidifies the power films have for crafting moral imaginations, specifically mad, Black ones.

[1] Ilaruns are African parting combs from the Yoruba tribe that are used to help create or take down braids. [2] BET, Black Entertainment Television, is a basic cable television channel catered to African American audiences [3] Townsend, Robert. Holiday Heart. Drama. MGM Television, Tribeca Productions, 2000. [4] Grant, Darren. Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Comedy, Drama, Romance. BET Pictures, Diary of a Woman Inc., Diary of a Woman Productions Inc., 2005. [5] In this paper, Black refers to the African American ethnicity, and black refers to the black race [6] Diary of A Mad Black Woman was written by Tyler Perry [7] Butler, Anthea, and Jonathan Walton. “The Black Church | American Experience | PBS.” PBS. Accessed March 18, 2022. [8] Ibid. [9] Gates, Henry Louis. “The History and Importance of the Black Church.” Harvard Gazette (blog), March 9, 2021. [10] Conversely, the subplot turns a new leaf also, as Debrah- the drug addicted wife of Helen’s cousin Brian (the father of the performing niece), finally checks herself into rehab. [11] Perry, Tyler. “Tyler Perry – Father, Can You Hear Me Lyrics | Genius Lyrics.” Accessed March 18, 2022. [12] Though, I admit that asking someone to sing to you in order to help you pray is a bit strange. [13] Newton, John. “Amazing Grace | Hymn Lyrics and Piano Music.” Hymns (blog), May 23, 2020. [14] This is how she is described in the film by her ex-lover [15] Congress, Library of. “African American Gospel | Ritual and Worship | Musical Styles | Articles and Essays | The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America | Digital Collections | Library of Congress.” Web page. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Accessed March 18, 2022. [16] Kemp, Kathryn. “When Gospel Music Sparked a ‘Worship War.’” Accessed March 18, 2022.

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