Hilarity, culture war ensue over Tyler Perry

Benjamin Svetkey, Margeau Watson and Alynda Wheat have written an impressive feature story for the March 20 Entertainment Weekly on what the magazine calls “black America’s secret culture war” surrounding playwright and filmmaker Tyler Perry.

Initially it sounds as though the conflicts are strictly about, in the words of the reporters, “regressive, down-market archteyptes”: “In many of his films there’s a junkie prostitute, a malaprop-dropping uncle, and Madea, a tough-talking grandma the size of a linebacker (‘Jemima the Hutt,’ one character calls her).”

Later comes this important paragraph, quoting from professor and film critic Donald Bogle and author Nelson George, who also directs films:

“Tyler Perry understands that much of his audience is African-American women — the most ignored group in Hollywood — so he’s doing movies that speak to them,” Bogle says. “You could see these films as parables or fables. There’s a black prince figure who shows up for black who’ve been frustrated, unhappy, or abused.” That’s the real reason critics don’t like Perry’s movies, says Nelson George: They’re made for churchgoing, working-class black women, not urban hipsters (or tenured professors). “Tyler Perry speaks to a constituency that is not cool,” George says. “There’s nothing cutting-edge about the people who like Tyler Perry. So, for a lot of other people, it’s like, ‘What is this thing that’s representing black people all over the world? I don’t like it. It doesn’t represent me.’”

Entertainment Weekly‘s story is not yet available online. The paragraph quoting both Bogle and George appears on the same page as a large photo of Perry, who’s directing Cicely Tyson in Madea’s Family Reunion while wearing a T-shirt that reads “Profanity Free Set.”

Writing nearly a year ago on The Root, Andre C. Willis of Yale Divinity School made similar complaints about Perry — and offered a remarkably grim list of topics that Perry ought to incorporate into his comedy to prove himself enlightened:

Perry has fallen short of the Christian imperative for a loving justice. He has yet to explore the true evils of patriarchy and structural oppression, and he has yet to present a substantive exploration of the complexity of black womanhood.

Perry could very easily address issues of a living wage, health care or black-on-black violence by examining the structural conditions that [undergird] these features of daily life. Since he clearly has a gift for comedy, it is quite possible that he could even wrestle with these more broadly contextualized themes while remaining funny. This would be a justice crusade in the most Christian sense. Given his track record, however, the chances for this true leap of faith seem slim.

Willis’ essay notwithstanding, Perry is no cardboard fundamentalist. He has worked with the Pentecostal TV evangelist T.D. Jakes and he credits Oprah Winfrey with helping him transform from a homeless man into a multimedia entrepreneur.

In an interview earlier this year with The Hollywood Reporter, Perry clearly expressed what boundaries he feels free to push, and where:

THR: What is your exact demographic? We know it is largely black women, but is there anything more specific?

Perry: It’s about 50% Christian churchgoing. It depends on what part of the country I’m in. If I’m in the Bible Belt it’s 90% churchgoing. If I’m up north in Newark it may be 30%, so it depends on where you are. I used to adjust the shows to where I am. If I was in the Bible Belt I made it more Christian, God-themed. If I was up north I could get away with saying “ass” a little more. I would say 75%-80% women, 10%-20% men and about 5% children. What I’ve learned is you treat the women right and they bring everybody else.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    living wage, health care or black-on-black violence

    I’m guessing that Andre C. Willis’s career at Yale Divinity did not follow a successful stint writing comedy.

  • Martha

    Sounds like the man is making films that are popular amongst a certain audience and he knows what they like.

    Just like every other film maker out there.

    Does the gentleman from Yale Divinity School have any thoughts to share on how the “American Pie” series should have addressed the state of public education in America, teen pregnancy, gender roles, sexual identity politics and access to higher-level education?

  • Chastonbrooks

    Tyler Perry produces modern day coon shows full of negative stereotypes and poor images for young African Americans. Just because it makes money doesnt mae it right. crack makes money too, so does Human Trafficking.

    Big loud talking aggresive asexual black mammy with coons and sambos dancing around laughing and beating bibles but not understanding them.

    Its no different that gangster rap and its portrayal of violence and the damaging effects that follow.

    Wake up people

  • Tracy

    I’ve done my fare share of laughing at Perry. But, folks who consume Perry uncritically need to reflect more seriously on the historical role of popular black entertainment which has always been funny, (hilarious actually) and at the same time useful and helpful in forging a radical political and social consciousness among black people- one that sustained the black freedom movement, and one that helped enhance progressive black christianity. For example, most of black comedy has been filled with profound critique of issues like black on black crime, structural racism, etc… just a few examples: Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Chris Rock. This is one key way we get a proper piece of the “American Pie.”

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  • Asada

    There’s nothing cool or cutting edge about black women.
    I dont even have words to describe this……

  • Americana

    Some of you people need to seriously GET OVER IT!! If you all reallllly want to go there how about those very stupid “Barbershop” and “Beauty Salon” movies that are an anomaly of offensive stereotypes?!! Tyler Perry showcases a side of black life a lot of black people are not homest enough to deal with and that is your fault not his. As for violence being ‘glorified’ duh rappers certainly DON’T have the market cornered on that funny how some of you don’t like Tyler Perry yet you have NO problem with how young,black males are portrayed on shows like “The Practice” “NYPD Blue” and “Law and Order”.

  • Jason

    Since there are so few black film makers/directors, we have very little control over our image to the world. I believe as a Black film maker, you have a responsibility to repair the black image and not reinforce the same negative stereotypes.

    Trust me, if Tyler Perry movies were uplifting for black people, he would not be as successful as he is. Film makers who have dared to try to reverse certain stereotypes or uplift the community were ostracized from the Hollywood community and forced to take their movies underground. White people love people like Tyler Perry because he does their dirty work! If a white man made movies like Madea, what would Black people say? We shouldn’t accept this stereotypical trash from our own either!