I have never been a fan of Tyler Perry and his films. Ever since I was dragged to his first one, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, back in 2005 by my then girlfriend who was a huge fan of his stage plays, I’ve had a ardent disdain for everything to come out of the Tyler Perry assembly line. He simply is not a talented filmmaker. Aside from the common assertions that Perry’s films are reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows and that his characters are “cooning,” he’s not an adept storyteller. His dialogue is clunky and unrealistic, his narratives are worn, and his hard-line Christian ideology is served in large doses, dumping his messages on his audience with the nimbleness of an 18-wheeler.
So when it was announced that Perry would be in charge of adapting Ntozake Shange classic choreopoem For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf for the screen, I was, like many fans of the work, dismayed. We couldn’t wrap our minds around the idea of Perry, a man who has not dealt very well with representations of black women, typically vacillating between broken/down-trodden crack mothers who need a strong man in their life to make everything better and the sassy/too independent for her own good black women who need a strong man in their life to make everything better, being tasked with tackling this epic portrayal of black womanhood.
There’s nothing in Perry’s repertoire that suggest he would be able to deftly handle the themes that run through Shange’s work, such as sexuality, mental illness, love of self, domestic violence, and rape. Perry has never exhibited the type of nuance and understanding of moral ambiguity required to handle these memes. Where any other filmmaker would be understated, Perry forces messages, stating with explicitness the ideas it would have served him better to explore with more care.
He has trouble getting ideas across to his audience without relying on broad, bold statements that undermine his story. The characters in Perry’s films have always felt like caricatures, or representations rather than human beings. And while there has been much criticism launched at him for his handling of black women, and rightfully so as most of his films center around the lives of black women yet he never affords them their full humanity, little is said about the men he uses to tell his stories.
To be sure, the women get the shortest end of the stick, but black men do no fare better in Perry’s films. In his black-and-white world of morality, black men are narrowly confined to two camps: the righteous and the evil, with many more falling into the evil category. They are all too often portrayed as drug dealers with a taste for blood, womanizers with no heart, abusive with no chance for redemption (save for through joining the church and accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior), or thugs without respectable jobs or hope for a brighter day.
Perry relies heavily on the well-worn stereotypes black men have been subject to in our culture, and while we can easily point to the idea that “we all know someone like that” what Perry lacks is any compassion or ability to humanize these characters, pull his audience into their worlds and try to find a place of understanding, where we can explore what has brought these characters to this “evil” place. Rather than take us there, Perry simply asserts evil as evil.
But he does have an affinity for a certain type of black men. The counterpart to the “evil” characters are the “righteous” ones, and this more often than not represented by a hard-working, blue collar, family-oriented, Christ-fearing black man who can simply do no wrong. He may not be rich, but he loves unconditionally, cares for his kids, doesn’t adhere to the “hoodlum” aesthetic, has aspirations for himself and his wife that reach beyond their humble reality, and never participates in any activity that is even remotely immoral. This is Perry’s idealized black man, who has found life in the form of Shemar Moore’s character in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Idris Elba in Daddy’s Little Girls, and most recently Hill Harper in For Colored Girls, which has an abundance of “evil” black men, among them a “down-low” brother.
It’s clear that Perry has a reverence for a certain “type” of black man. Far be it from me to psychoanalyze him, but it’s possible that it’s an expression of his desire for this type of father-figure that was missing from his own life. Add to that his recent admission that during his childhood he was sexually abused by both men and women, his views on black manhood and womanhood start to gain some context. Through his films, Perry is working through his distrust and disgust for those who have harmed him and attempting to praise the idealized versions of what he has always dreamed would be his own reality.
And while I can understand that desire, it leaves us, his audience, with incomplete films with empty, inhuman characters. At this point, one would hope he would realize that nothing is so clear as “wrong vs. right” and all of us are living lives full of contradictions, and while we strive to be our best selves even the most “righteous” among us fall short of divinity.