Tyler Perry made news and won considerable praise this past weekend when it was announced that he would pay for the rebuilding of an 88-year-old’s burned home out of his own pocket.
Incredibly kind acts like this beg the question: In the future, in the tradition of patron saints of the black community, will there be digital photo frames in thousands of black homes displaying Obama, Oprah and Tyler Perry?
When you think about it, there are striking parallels between the two moguls. They both had stints in poverty — as a child Oprah’s family was so broke she wore dresses made out of potato sacks. Perry also grew up poor, later experiencing homelessness. Both have also experienced sexual abuse in their childhood. And as adults Oprah and Perry both become self-made millionaires, owning their own production companies, Harpo Productions and Tyler Perry Studios respectively.
Oprah and Perry are also dedicated to charity. Oprah’s got her Mandela-inspired school for girls in South Africa, not to mention her various talk show-led initiatives like The Angel Network. Perry is also passionate about giving back, donating $1 million to the NAACP and significant sums for relief efforts in Haiti.
But most poignantly, the two are most similar in the arena of influence. In each of their given mediums, television for Oprah and film for Perry, they dominate and are virtually unrivaled. There is no other talk show host that has come close to the level of success and influence that Oprah has achieved. She played a huge part in helping our nation elect its first black president, by one estimate contributing over a million votes via her talk show audience. There’s even a name for the type of influence that she has — it’s called “The Oprah Effect.”
Similarly, Tyler Perry may be the most financially successful black filmmaker of our time, and his career has yet to peak. His films regularly open at number one in the box office, grossing millions of dollars. He’s got the market cornered when it comes to the African-American audience. For a while it felt like if you wanted to see black people on screen it undoubtedly would have to be in a Tyler Perry film. Add that to his two shows on TBS, and it’s clear that Perry is at the top of the black entertainment food chain.
Of course, Perry isn’t quite on Oprah’s level yet. Besides the millions of dollars Perry has yet to earn, there’s also the issue of race. When Oprah fills out the US Census, in the race box she might as well write in “Oprah.” She is beyond race and category, hence why she’s able to attract the millions of middle American women who tune into her shows, buy her books and magazines, and listen to her XM radio channel. They’re not watching a black woman — they’re watching Oprah.
Conversely, Tyler Perry is strictly black, through and through. His shows and humors tap into certain stereotypes that even some black people can’t (or don’t want to) relate to — the pushy dominating matriarch, the bitter and shunned black woman, the emphasis on God and spirituality. You’d be hard pressed to find white faces coloring any of his movie theater audiences, and that probably won’t change for a while. Perry may never experience the kind of crossover success that has propelled Oprah to be one of the most influential women in the world.
Another difference is their respective cultural impact. Oprah may be criticized for not catering to the black community enough, but she’s unarguably had a positive impact on the public perception of African-Americans. Perry, on the other hand, has a stable of detractors who criticize him for reinforcing tired stereotypes of African-American life.
Filmmaker Spike Lee even went so far as to suggest that Perry’s work is “coonery and buffoonery.” And because Hollywood strongly supports the HNIC complex, Perry’s films are the predominate images of black life on film right now. There are few other movies to counter Perry’s gun-toting Madea, and those that try don’t come near the multi-million dollar box office sales that Perry puts up. Years from now are we going to regret Perry’s impact on the image of black America?
Tyler Perry is no Oprah Winfrey — yet. However the similarities are clear, and if Perry continues to makes moves and grow in his career, entrepreneurial, and charitable pursuits, there’s no reason he can’t have as much, if not more, influence as Lady O.