Why Tyler Perry taking over Alex Cross role is a drag

OPINION - Will this "reboot" evolve into a dress-wearing, crime solver who can deliver a few laughs? To be real, that's the greatest fear...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

That Tyler Perry is full of surprises. In the latest news, Madea has been tapped to succeed Morgan Freeman as the new Alex Cross, the central character from the successful James Patterson book series that’s resulted in two films Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. Not even Vegas would have placed odds on that. But come this June, it will be “lights, camera, action” in I, Alex Cross, the biggest mainstream film yet for Perry.

Last August, it was practically a done deal that Idris Elba would play the psychologist turned top crime solver. Elba had even cautiously begun speaking to the press about playing the part. So what happened? Who has ever imagined Idris Elba losing out on a role to Tyler Perry? Without question, Elba is one of the most promising and accomplished black actors around. Most recently, Elba received a Golden Globe nomination for his impressive turn as a detective in the BBC’s Luther. Remember how he brought it as Tango up against Denzel in American Gangster?

Meanwhile, Perry’s biggest non-Madea role to date has been a brief cameo as Admiral Richard Barnett in Star Trek. And Perry himself casted Elba in a lead role for his 2007 film Daddy’s Little Girls. Even in his own movies, which he writes, produces and directs, Perry has usually cast himself in small, supportive roles so it seemed like even he knew his limitations as a potential leading man.

Bill Block, CEO of QED International, which is behind the Alex Cross reboot, told Entertainment Weekly that “Sure, Idris is a great actor; Tyler Perry is a phenomenon. Tyler Perry is one of the most significant entertainers in all of media.” With dollar signs likely dancing in his head, Block, speaking via cell in an airport en route to Berlin to peddle global distribution rights of the film, assured EW that “This is going to be the new Tyler Perry franchise, a worldwide one…Tyler Perry is going to take this to the worldwide audience. It’s just a very different, much bigger opportunity.”

More interesting, he added, “If you can get Tyler Perry or Will Smith, you try.” Huh? Very rarely has Perry ever been mentioned in the same breath as Will Smith. The only thing that truly comes to mind is the line-up for the NAACP Image Awards and other black, star-studded events but almost never in an acting context. Have we missed this mass appeal with which Block seems so smitten? Or perhaps Block and his team see Perry as the next Will Smith or bigger in terms of mainstream movie appeal and want to be the first to mine gold?

“He is a huge cross-media talent and presence — and he’s a terrific actor whose range is going to be shown here. You’re going to see Tyler Perry like you haven’t seen him. He’s 6’5″, he is a linebacker. He is an awesome physical presence and is just going to tear it apart here. It’s an intense, dramatic role,” Block also told EW.

Maybe Block is right and Perry is just brimming with untapped talent. But there are just so few opportunities like Alex Cross for black actors that the prospect of Perry, who is primarily known for cross-dressing as a pistol-toting “Big Mama,” playing him is a bit unnerving. Will this “reboot” evolve into a dress-wearing, crime solver who can deliver a few laughs? To be real, that’s the greatest fear.

With Elba, there was also an opportunity to project a new image of black men on film. Unlike Freeman’s portrayal of Alex Cross, Elba promised to inject some sex appeal into the role, an element that is very tangible in the book series. Black Hollywood insiders have long whispered that the black male sex symbol is Hollywood’s greatest fear. Yes, Denzel Washington elevated to that status but that’s largely by default; Hollywood did not bank on his sex appeal at all. And, if you really think about most of his roles, with the notable exception of 2003’s Out of Time with Sanaa Lathan, few have involved steamy, sexual relationships. Black male roles rarely do. That’s so not the scenario with their white male counterparts who, at any age or under any harrowing circumstance in a film, usually manage to have plenty of time for on-screen romances. On film, so many black male actors are lucky to even have a girlfriend, let alone score some 9 ½ Weeks-style action.

In a rare interview where Elba spoke of the role, he said, “Alex Cross is a reboot, so what Morgan Freeman did with (the character), I’m not going to do.” And maybe that was the catalyst for the surprising Perry replacement. Because Perry is not widely viewed as the virile, black man that Elba is, it is very easy for him to continue in mainstream Hollywood’s tradition of asexual roles for black male actors. It’s hard to even recall a film in which Freeman had a love interest and he’s made plenty of films. There’s just no way to deny Elba’s smoldering sex appeal on screen; it just can’t be muted.

There is the hopeful chance that Block is right and Perry will surprise us all. Maybe he is this acting phenom who can rise to the occasion and surpass our poor expectations. It just seems that once a brother puts on a dress in a film, his career eventually goes downhill. Martin Lawrence (Big Momma franchise), Chris Tucker (Money Talks) and even Wesley Snipes (To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar) come to mind. Let’s just hope the reverse can happen with Perry and he can make us forget about Madea. At this moment and time, however, it just seems that Tyler Perry has crossed Idris Elba out for no good reason.