Tyler Perry is making headlines again.
On Sunday night, he made an appearance on 60 Minutes addressing his critics – and specifically archrival Spike Lee – who have accused him of making films and TBS programs that are akin to modern day minstrel shows. In his interview with Byron Pitts, Perry said he is “pissed” at his adversaries because they don’t understand that his movies are geared towards those who don’t usually have a voice in Hollywood – the black working class.
I personally don’t care for Perry’s buffoonish characters like Madea and Mr. Brown. However, the constant jabbing that takes place every time a new Perry production opens gives the impression that the hatred of Perry and his ever-growing media empire has more to do with jealousy than wanting to uplift the black community.
Somebody is clearly watching Perry’s films. The last five of them have reached the top spot at the box office and his television shows are some of the most highly rated programs on cable television. Whether you like it or not, Perry has tapped into a neglected niche in the marketplace, which has helped him to become one of the wealthiest men in the film industry.
My question to the anti-Perry flock who are quick to put Spike Lee up on a pedestal as the greatest black filmmaker of all time: when was the last time you saw a Spike Lee film? Many of my own black friends and colleagues of the middle class, intellectual variety to whom I have posed this question have had to stop and think.
I saw Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna” last year during its opening weekend. The theatre had a very small audience and I was the only black person in the room. If Spike Lee is so great, why does it seem like he has no relevance among African-Americans as far as attracting them to his most recent films?
This issue goes beyond Spike Lee films. Two years ago, I also saw “The Great Debaters”, the Denzel Washington-directed, Oprah Winfrey-produced film about a group of black college debaters, and, again, I was the lone face of color in the theatre.
On the flip side, people get excited whenever a new Tyler Perry film comes out, and they flock to the theater in droves. Perry’s use of characters based on people and situations that he claims reflect a personal reality has worked out for him. It’s hard to knock down a man who is fulfilling a demand, even though it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Nonetheless, how can we really complain about Perry’s films when most of us don’t support the few positive media portrayals that are out there? Instead of giving Perry free publicity every time a new film of his premieres, maybe that time would be better spent putting our wallets where are mouths are and supporting Spike Lee and other black filmmakers who – truly – do the right thing.
Tyler Perry’s success says less about him and more about why we don’t demand better of ourselves.