Tyler Perry is easily the most successful black filmmaker and producer of a generation with seven theatrical releases and two syndicated television shows. Perry has ridden the house-dress of his most popular character, Aunt Madea – a chain-smoking, gun-toting, cussing doppelganger of everybody’s favorite auntie – to become a phenomenon. All eyes are once again on Tyler Perry with this weekend’s release of “I Can Do Bad All By Myself.”
Perry’s last film, “Madea Goes to Jail,” grossed $41 million in its opening weekend and ultimately grossed more than $90 million. His films have grossed $400 million in total. “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” – which features Mary J Blige, Gladys Knight and Taraji P Henson – is expected to do as well.
Perry’s success coincides with the increased fortunes of black televangelists like Bishop T.D. Jakes, Pastor Creflo Dollar and Bishop Eddie L. Long. Perry got his start producing plays that hark back to the days of the chitlin’ circuit and that are popular with black church audiences. It was not unusual to attend one of Perry’s early plays and find dozens of buses filled with folk who’d just left morning services.
With his plays, Perry tapped into the black church demographic that had been largely forgotten and ignored by major advertisers. He has delivered the same audience to Hollywood, an audience advertisers have not been able to reach for decades. By the summer of 2007, when he rolled out his first syndicated television series, “House of Payne,” the Tyler Perry brand was born. However, the core message of that brand has raised eyebrows.
The most obvious criticism comes from those uncomfortable with Perry’s drag performance of Madea, arguing that the boisterous and decidedly “ghetto” Madea was little more than a contemporary riff on the blackface minstrelsy of the early 20th-century, where black performers “blackened up” – literally and figuratively – for the delight of white audiences.
But to truly understand why Madea is so troublesome is to fully understand Perry’s core audience. Perry’s audience mirrors black church congregations, where black women parishioners often significantly outnumber male members. Perry films, as such, often reinforce very traditional, and even conservative, notions of gender in black communities. Madea, as a supposed female character, simply represents patriarchy in drag.
Increasingly though, Perry films have publically admonished black women who dared to be too ambitious, particularly in their careers. As Courtney Young recently wrote in The Nation, “Each of his films advances nearly the same message to his audience. Be demure. Be strong but not too strong. Too much ambition is a detriment to your ability to find a partner and spiritual health. Female beauty can be dangerous. Let a man be a ‘man’.”
Letting a man be a man often entails the use of violence, as in Perry’s “The Family that Preys.” In that film, Sanaa Latham and Rockmond Dunbar play a young married couple. She’s an Ivy-League graduate and he’s a construction worker. As she becomes more successful in her career, and begins to flaunt it, there is obvious tension. The situation comes to a head when Dunbar’s character confronts his wife about her affair with her white boss (a white boss who has fathered a child which Dunbar’s character thought was his own) and proceeds to slap his wife across a lunch counter. The scene alone was troubling, but more troubling was the audience reaction when I screened the film. Many stood up and applauded the man’s act of violence.
What I thought was an isolated experience was repeated to me by colleagues and friends who also saw the film. Perhaps most troubling is that Perry’s take on black gender politics – not much different than the everyday rapper we are so willing to label as misogynistic – seems to reflect mainstream opinion in black communities.
Perry has placed a mirror up to our collective image and if we don’t like what we see, we need to move beyond simply complaining about what Perry is doing.