Tyler Perry’s films don’t bother me much. And I don’t take it personally when he brings to the big screen larger than life caricatures of what he [and others] perceive to be the ‘essence’ of black American folks and black American culture. I’m not bothered by the fact that what he may or may not do in terms of character development is “representative” or not, because I personally have never had a Madea in my home, nor have I ever come across a Madea in all the years that I’ve been on the planet. I don’t have physically larger than life relatives, and I’ve don’t usually spend time in the company of people who cuss one another out for sport and entertainment. Perhaps this is because I live a middle class bougie existence in Canada?
I’ve never purchased a movie theatre ticket to a film made by Tyler Perry, and I don’t imagine that I ever will. I have seen a few of his films well past their due date, and I’ve read nearly all of the reviews that have predated the release of each of his films.
Usually critics of Perry’s films say the same thing so I won’t revisit the critique again, but for the purposes of this discussion the highlights of said reviews often include criticisms that he plays to “stereotype” and that many black Americans find his work “embarrassing.” Interestingly, and please correct me if I’m wrong, there’s usually never a critique made of or by the actors who play the characters that he directs in his films. Which is likely because actors are happy to do what they do best, and that is act.
Perry’s counter-argument is that he is employing people, fuelling the economy, and that there is a segment of the population who do enjoy his films. I’ve heard it say that white people do not sit in theatres to watch his films, which begs the question, “who are these so-called offended people who hate his films? And why won’t they leave the brother alone?”
Well, let’s just say that the chorus of “haters” includes Spike Lee, and most, if not all of the popular “Black Intelligentsia.” Just ask the Reverend Al Sharpton—who, incidentally, is not a card carrying member of the “Black Intelligentsia.” In fact, he’s more “embarrassing” than a TP film, cuz dude is actually a real live person. A few days ago the Reverend Al, as he is affectionately known, told the world that the Black Intelligentsia didn’t like him perhaps because of his hair-do, and his loud mouth, plus the fact that he never went to college. Essentially, what he have is here is class warfare.
The Reverend is “self-made,” loud and proud. Something that we bougie black types admire from afar but openly disdain up front. But guess what? Reverend Al doesn’t care about us bougie black folks. The Reverend Al doesn’t care that you find his behaviour stereotypically awkward when you’re trying to prove how socially sophisticated you are. That’s right, when the world is watching, American bougie Black folks care more about the performance of their embarrassing cousins only as it relates to what they assume is “acceptable” to a white standard. Except little do they recognize that the white standard shifts according to how deeply the black mind is enslaved. [Alternatively, the bougie black intelligentsia could very well be trying to establish a new black standard, and really, Perry, isn’t it about damn time?!]
But lest we forget, this is what institutionalized and internalized racism does. It makes you hate yourself, and others who you perceive to be in the throes of deep self-hatred in all its manifestations, no matter what your criteria for success is.
For example, you rarely hear one white film director publicly dis/cuss out another white film director’s oeuvre for what he perceives to be a genre that depicts his “race” in a negative light. Only bougie black folks do that. For example, when Harmony Korine makes a film that so-called “glamourizes” white trash behaviours, white people don’t line up, picket and protest, curse and cuss how Korine has humiliated the entire race of white [trash] people. No, instead, Harmony Korine gets an offer from chi-chi-poo-poo couture designers Proenza Schouler to make a fashion art-house film replete with black ghetto girls wearing expensive ready to wear garments [the fuck?]. The white community goes Cool! And the black community calls Blaxploitation!
And this, dear friends is what La Racisme does. And those folks who experience Privilege are able to make the sliding rule scale in order to distinguish what constitutes libellous and slanderous propaganda. Which is likely why “they,” the privileged amongst us, don’t have as much of a problem with Tyler Perry as “we,” the not as privileged, do.
The other day I read a poor piece of writing on why Perry’s movies are “harmful.” The writer chronicles a history lesson of buffoonish movie characters in the American community of filmmaking that begins with Steppin Fetchit and continues today in his opinion, in the form of Tyler Perry movies. Steppin Fetchit is a painful reminder and a product of slavery, however I don’t think it serves any purpose to erase it from history. I do think that society as a whole should be informed and enlightened enough to want to decry it, and to examine why it’s considered potentially harmful, but if it’s “enjoyed” by “some” people, why should we care that deeply? [Let’s draw a similar racial trajectory: The “Blacks” have Tyler Perry, and The Italians have The Sopranos, and more recently Jersey Shore. I’m sure the society of the league of successful Italians cringe each time Snookie opens her mouth or The Situation flexes a muscle, but um, so what? These stereotypes serve a “purpose” and that is that some of us “are” this way, and some of us aren’t. Next!
Don’t get me wrong, America’s Holly’weird is a very powerful and very political, heavily biased money-making machine. It privileges young white women, powerful old white men, and eroticizes and exocitizes people of colour, and others. It plays directly into the hands of stereotypes, racist depictions and shows privilege and preference to one religion over another. And yet we cannot wait to stand in line and throw our money to the very people who “control” and “dictate” which images are suitable for our viewing pleasure. Holly’weird feeds our insatiable desire for so-called celebrity culture and literally encourages us to bring our very children like lambs to the slaughter in exchange for so-called money and fame. Culture is culture; hi, low, middle and everything in between.
And then there’s Tyler Perry. Why shouldn’t he be given the same opportunity to exploit his culture, the way that white people have exploited his culture? If a black man, a man who for all intents and purposes embodies and exemplifies the very real threat that historically white men have feared deigns to don the dress and humiliate his people, why shouldn’t we embrace that? If we know in our heart of hears that this ISN’T who we are, then why fight the losing fight to suggest otherwise? Dear Spike Lee, methinks thou dost protest too much!
What if Tyler Perry’s greatest comedic genius lays in the fact that his work is clever and subversive, and we’re too busy being offended to notice? [Or, as any self-help guru will tell you, that what we loathe in others is most likely the very thing we despise in ourselves?] What if Perry is “simply” playing into the base desires of human need, greed and narcissism, that by seeing people on screen who are not “like” us, we can identify with sufficient distance, and perhaps push those behaviours aside or sweep them under the rug and no longer acknowledge them once we leave the theatre. What if Perry’s greatest moments are yet to come and that before we know it, he will transform like Oprah who, lest we forget, used to be the Queen of Embarrassing Drivel, which, less we forget, nobody criticized too tough whilst some of us were privately enjoying her titilating offerings. When Oprah finally flipped the script for more positive and uplifting pastures, we embraced her anew with open arms. Now, what if like Oprah, Tyler Perry has the same strategies in mind?
But like crabs in a bucket, bougie black folks are loathe to give Tyler Perry his due. Et tu Spike Lee? What about your depictions of black women. Um, why should we be giving you a pass again? And Dear Mr. & Mrs. John Q Public, what about that strange genre of film that privileges extreme violence? Why is that shit OK? This is what racism does.
Oh and hi people who think that Tyler Perry thinks he’s “above criticism.” Of course he thinks no such thing! Perry doesn’t have the luxury of believing that he is above reproach. Dude works in one of the most critical, fickle-minded, and subjective industries in the world, where not only does he have to deliver a product that costs him millions to produce, he has to find a way to make that money back and more.
So here’s what I think. I think that artists and creative people see things differently from the mainstream. The creative person’s gift is to interpret, convey and give birth to an expression or a feeling that you or I might not necessarily have the skills to bring to light. The creative person’s job is to create a space for dialogue and interpretation knowing that whatever he or she brings to the table may be met with applause, cynicism, flip judgment and rejection, or wild acceptance, to name a few. And yet, the creative person continues to make his or her art despite what you may think, or how I might feel. Why? Because art-making is a calling; like serving food, crunching numbers, teaching children, and building buildings.
Art-making by committee doesn’t serve the artist, it serves the committee. It dilutes the product into a gimmick and feeds the lowest common denominator. Is this what Tyler Perry has done? Is this what the actors in his films are deliberating participating in? I’m not entirely convinced that Perry’s mission is to debase his art, or to debase his culture or to embarrass his community. And if it is, well, Madea is laughing her damn ass off all the way to the bank. Jealous much?