On Tyler Perry.


by Black Scientist. x-posted from Black Scientist.

Entertainment Weekly recently ran an article about Tyler Perry and “black america’s secret culture war”. I’m not sure what they’re talking about and I tend to think I’m black. but apparently, there’s a culture war in progress right under our noses, and it’s all due to mr. multi-millionaire Tyler Perry: the playwright, author, filmmaker, and actor who has created a franchise around his name and is also responsible for opening the first black-owned studio in the U.S. in October of last year. It’s worth mentioning that he also owns it all, from the movies and video library (he’s sold 25 million DVDs of his plays) to his TV shows.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether Perry is “bad” or “good” for black folks. Author Donald Bogle thinks Perry’s most famous character, Madea, is “mammy-like,” and that “If a white director put out this product, the black audience would be appalled.” Bogle doesn’t think Perry’s claim that Madea is based on an actual woman he’s known excuses the fact that she resembles a racist archetype invented by white men and forced onto black women in media. Professor at USC, Todd Boyd, also isn’t pleased with Perry’s films. According to him, ”All of [Perry’s] productions demonize educated, successful African-Americans,” and he “is simply reflecting the thinking of a lot of uneducated, working-class African-Americans.”

Ouch. Then there’s Perry himself, who says that the stories have come out of his own pain and everything he’s been through, perhaps including living out of his car for a few months in Atlanta before his plays got picked up in theatres. To him, the characters are “simply tools to make people laugh”.

As someone who actually found parts of Madea’s Family Reunion funny (call me lower-class if you will), I’m not mad at Tyler Perry. His films, which are in some ways modern morality plays, speak to a largely black demographic — people who can relate for various reasons, whether they are southern, church-going, have a dream of social mobility, like seeing black folks on TV, or whatever. I can admit that I absolutely suffered through Why Did I Get Married, but just because I thought it sucked doesn’t mean it’s not a story worthy of being told.

It seems like black people get very picky about the representations of blackness that get put on screen. And this is understandable considering the long history of racist depictions by white media. But we cannot only advocate for portrayals that we like. And by we, I mean the middle to upper class, extra educated, bourgie and/or afrocentric negroes who think that a country-ass grandmother on TV who suggests throwing hot grits to resolve romantic conflict is holding back the race.

Are we only content with the token black character in Hollywood productions, or with images that we consider “positive”?

tyler-perryjpegIt is common for people in the Tyler Perry debate (especially white people) to wonder why — in the age of Barack Obama — we still have films with mostly black people in them? That is, films that draw on a southern black culture and a sense of humor that many white people – frankly – just don’t get. The general narrative starts: “At a time when Barack Obama is presenting the world with a bold new image of black America…” and ends with something about Perry’s films having “junkie prostitute[s]” in them. As a blogger for the LA Times puts it: “Even after America has elected a black president, it remains a country that is–especially when it comes to TV and movies–culturally divided.” Is this true? “Divided” or “different”? Because some of us voted for the individual Barack Obama, are we suddenly expected to share the same values, culture, sense of humor?

And why don’t we talk about the election of Obama and white Hollywood? “Mainstream” film has been construed as catering to the majority of Americans although, since the 1920s, it has told a very specific middle-class, suburban, white, hetero-normative story. “Mainstream” films can be considered to have a “submerged racial presence,” in that they do not thematize race per se, but they do engage humor, stories, and culture that draw on a particularly raced experience (Dig Unthinking Eurocentrism by Shohat and Stam). When we go see a mainstream Hollywood movie where the cast is ninety-five percent white, rarely (if ever) are questions posed about the necessity of such films in a “post-racial” society. But because TP tells stories that happen to revolve around black characters, his products are labeled “specializied,” racialized, and obsolete. This is because the white American public is not familiar with black spaces in the way that everyone is familiar with white spaces. And it’s not because black space is any more private, but because mass media has been exposing everyone to the ins and outs of white life for decades so that we are all accustomed to a certain humor that draws on a widespread understanding of white culture.

The arbitrary connections between Barack Obama and Tyler Perry imply false notions of post-race as well as exaggeratedly raced readings of Perry’s films. Obama is painted as the face of our “post-racial society,” and Tyler Perry as a vestige of “race movies” – black productions created by black people in the early 20th century that presented alternative narratives to those of the exclusively white film industry. It’s like Obama is what we like about black people, and the TP is what we don’t. But why can’t the two exist together, as dialogical components of a larger recognition of difference? Why can’t they both present images of blackness that we can watch and accept, without necessarily ingesting as absolute truth.

I’m a fan of diverse (and preferably complex) representations. They don’t have to be reflective or realistic, as long as everything is not The Cosby Show and everything is not Shaft. Perhaps people are up in arms because in the gaping absence of national minority representation in media, Perry has the authority of being the foremost employer of black actors/actresses and the most widely watched storyteller amongst black audiences. But that is an issue of lack of representation and shouldn’t be addressed by attempting to narrow down the few existing representations into an image we prefer. Regardless of how artistically or politically progressive Tyler Perry’s films may seem, he is pulling in record-making numbers at the box office which means he is reaching sizable audiences on a consistent basis. And because these audiences are predominantly black and latino, white critics have been drastically off the marks with their predictions, and are having to cope with a loyal audience that was previously rendered invisible. But this is an important audience, TP is an important filmmaker, and to dismiss him would be to dismiss the spectatorship of a bunch of people who — to the dismay of many film and culture critics — are basically dictating what’s popular right now in Hollywood.

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  • i’m white, and one of my favorite movies is Diary of a Mad Black Woman. I think that whiteness has become so standardized that any deviation from it throws white people into a confused panic. while i do not always agree with the portrayal of the educated women, these are Perry’s stories that we have no control over. i’m glad he’s successful, and if we lived in a truly equal society he would not be the only poc in charge of studios, and thus the movies based on black culture wouldn’t be monopolized by one man. i think his white critics are making the mistake of considering him the representative of all black culture, which is ridiculous because no one white person represents me.

    excellent post.

  • Great read, though I do not quite see the sort of opposition that you see between film and culture critics and black audiences (Roger Ebert, who I read, is not too salty about Perry and his fame). This might also come from the fact that I do not read newspapers all that much. Also, I do not know about how many Latinos are down with Perry. Still, really thought-provoking stuff.

  • Aisha

    Very interesting point of view. I’ve only watched the Tyler Perry films that don’t involve Madea. Simply because I don’t like slapstick comedy. So those movies won’t draw me Black or White cast. I’m a pretty simplistic movie watcher in general but, even I can recognize how non-complex his films are. I really don’t think they are hurting the image of black people. A movie that no one else really watches other than black people can’t really do that. In general I think people give the media too much credit for these types of things.

    The other thing I realized while reading your piece was that people want to see movies about people who are like them. There are way more Black people who will identify with the Madea themed movies versus those who are going to fully resonate with say a “The Best Man.”

    I’m also trying to figure out what uber educated black woman broke his heart. He seems to hate educated black women.

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  • LC

    First of all, I could care LESS about the box office (even though it always matters, especially in Hollywood) since this weekend’s biggest film was The Fast and the Furious (72.5 million).
    ‘Nuff said there for me.

    My issue is that Tyler Perry seems to enjoy the formula of distressed, utterly helpless black woman, berated and surrealistically mistreated by a DARKSKIN black man, only to find comfort in her savior, the light skin, good brutha’ . Many of his films (Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Meet the Browns) follow that ridiculous framework. I think he really has an issue with skin color. And in every movie, the plot is a rushed and overpopulated dramatic conflict, with selected punctures of Madea for comedic relief. Frankly, I’d rather see a movie with all Madea, than deal with his main male character playing the Strong Black male savior aka Capt. save-a-hoe, aka He loves me AND my kids or whatever. Give us a developed story that has depth, and DYNAMIC characters, not caricatures.

    As a storyteller, he is trying more to show fables rather than true experience. Ok, I get that. And he seems to improve with each new film, disregarding Madea Goes to Jail. But stop churning out this convoluted stories with too many characters, underdeveloped plotlines, miscast actors or actresses (Angela Bassett as a single mother in Chicago, REALLY, I mean REALLLY?????), and boring couples. You can tackle some of the real issues, Black Male development, black females as head householders, Drugs, Religion, Income gap, homosexuality, hip hop and include Madea and whatever morality play you like. Just stop returning to the same, exhausted story line

  • thinking of a name

    Although I will sit through every Tyler Perry movie made just to see beautiful images of blackness that I cannot get in any other movie in general I very much dislike Perry as a writer and director. Taking out social class and the “demonizing of educated blacks” the story lines are paper thin, predictable and carried out in a very heavy handed way. This is a real problem to me, but like a starving man getting tossed a cracker I will eat it up like a gourmet meal.

    I don’t hate him for finding a way to serve a market that has been underserved … forget underserved, let’s just say ignored. I hate the fact that there is no one else who is able to use his formula and produce great stories. I would like some Eve’s Bayou with my Madea please. If McDonalds can have Burger King, Barbie can have The Bratz, why oh why can’t Tyler Perry have some competition??? There is no balance and that is a problem to me.

  • WestIndianArchie

    This is racial cheerleading at its finest.

    The kinda folks that go to Tyler Perry’s movies
    1) didn’t want Obama to run, cause he might get killed
    2) didn’t think Obama would win, until Iowa
    3) after Iowa, thought Obama was Jesus and beyond reproach
    4) now no longer follow politics, but still wear campaign paraphenalia

    Folks who only care about seeing black, but not what that black person does or stands for. Kinda folks that hail from Harlem but root for Cameroon during the World Cup.

    Tyler Perry makes bad movies.
    His bad movies have a huge audience of people that like bad movies.

    Although it may be profitable to cater to the lowest common denominator
    – T-pain
    – R.Kelly
    – Flo Rida
    – dead prez
    – World Trade Center debunking
    – Hypnotiq
    – Bebe Sport
    – Chrysler 300C

    Ultimately we should demand better.

  • ladyfresshh

    that is an issue of lack of representation and shouldn’t be addressed by attempting to narrow down the few existing representations into an image we prefer.


    esp considering preferences can vary widely and change periodically

    we would be better served extending our efforts woards expanding the market that serves us

  • I was in a class for Black Cinema and one day, my professor asked the question, “What is a Black film?” Unfortunately, I was a little timid in this class but I did listen carefully to the more vocal students’ answers and most of them only picked films that represented us in a way that would be deem as positive to many Black people like Lean On Me. However, a film like Menace 2 Society was not considered a Black film because they felt it was a caricature of the Black experience.

    During the conversation, I couldn’t help but think what you wrote about, why can’t there be good films and bad films within Black cinema? Why do we feel the need to cater to what a certain class or a certain race of people think? Can’t we just make films of our experience and accept the fact that some will be good and some will be bad?

    And I totally agree with you that it’s not a matter of Tyler Perry’s film making but the fact there is ONLY Tyler Perry making Black movies in Hollywood.

  • Tyler Perry is not the only one making black movies in Hollywood. But he is the one that seems to be making the most money. Recently I can name A Miracle at St. Anna, the Secret Life of Bees, and Akeelah and the Bee off the top of the dome… there are other representations of blacks in American life on film. But ain’t nobody’s going to see them in the same way they’re going to see Tyler Perry, and nobody is being as prolific as Tyler Perry in doing this. There are other black film makers whose works aren’t big time yet – we can see them in movie festivals, like the one that just happened in Philly. They don’t have big distribution deals, though. Tyler Perry can do whatever he wants ’cause he had that chitlin’ circuit money to start out with and he’s also shown that he can pack the theaters. He only has to answer to his audience – you got to give the people what they want.

    It’s funny – you need to be careful what you wish for. As much as I loved the existence of 90’s/early 2000’s movies with black casts – Love Jones, Best Man, Brown Sugar etc. – I never could really relate to most of the characters. They often had nice big homes or trendy apartments, big elaborate weddings, prestigious or glamorous jobs – stuff that, as a first generation middle class member (and even that’s tenuous) who is 1 and 1/2 generations removed from poverty, has little to do with me or most people I know. It felt like the stories were only showing a life that most people I know aspire to, and not a life that is actually tangible to us. I mean, seeing black folks with ends is nice and all, and there’s totally a place for it, but it’s just a little off my experience radar. Our experiences and stories are broader than what happens to our middle-class. I was wishing for movies about “regular” black families like mine that didn’t necessarily have to devolve into violence by the end or center on drugs, like Boyz in the Hood and Friday did (though I love both those movies).

    Well, that’s what Tyler Perry provides (sometimes), and I hate his plays, and his sitcoms, and I don’t care for his movies. It’s the raggedy writing, shallow characterization, over-reliance on stereotypes, total absence of nuance, formulaic predictability, and the use of slapstick humor that makes me roll my eyes. As much as Boyz and Friday were about the hood and had negative images of black folks in them, they were both relatable (think Craig’s family life in Friday, or Tre’s relationship with his dad) and entertaining without stupidity. Soul Food and Crooklyn might not be Oscar winners, but they tried to paint pictures of non-“bourgie” black people that were entertaining and relatable. Madea does stuff like come up with a chainsaw out of nowhere and saw a couch in half in, I think it was, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. And don’t even get me started on the existence of the Madea character itself. My problem with Tyler Perry movies isn’t one of classism so much as that he consistently misses the immense potential in his projects by a wide enough margin that it’s disturbing. I don’t have a problem with comedies and dramas that feature working class or poor black people – I have a problem when he uses the lowest, most unimaginative ways to connect with that type of audience when he should be able to do better, knowing that we are smart enough to handle it. I feel like he’s “talking down” to his audience. I wish someone else was trying to do what Tyler Perry is doing – maybe if they were better, he would step his game up. But he has no competition. After all the money he’s made, why isn’t someone else with the means trying to tap into this market and do a better job? This monopoly is killing me. I want to be compelled to go to the movies, too.