How Tyler Perry exposes divide in black America

OPINION - Love him or hate him, he gets us thinking and talking, and maybe that will be his greatest legacy of all...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Tyler Perry is the most relevant black filmmaker working today. It’s not just the numbers that bear that out, although grossing close to $500 million in domestic box office receipts since 2005 is a pretty convincing argument. What makes Perry and his films significant is the inevitable debate that ensues among African-Americans after every new release.

We are a people often bitterly divided when it comes to the work of Mr. Perry, and the praise and criticism come in myriad forms.

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Perry has some of the most dedicated and loyal fans that defend him at every turn. For them, not only are his films entertaining, but they reflect something they rarely get to experience in their cinematic experience: themselves. His movies typically contain characters of middle or working class backgrounds who are devout, southern Christians, and often times women.

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It’s a previously untapped market that has felt neglected by filmmakers for some time, and in Perry have found at least one writer/director concerned with placing them and people they can readily identify with prominently on screen. And for many of these fans, Perry can do no wrong.

This stands in stark contrast to those, myself included, who are ardent critics of Perry’s films (and at times critics of Perry himself, because of his unwillingness to accept critique, learn, and grow), and see the characters more as caricatures, stereotypes even, that are often demeaning toward black women and men alike.

Particularly enraging is the infamous loud-mouthed, gun-toting, wig-wearing, Perry-in-drag Madea character. A star of many of his films and stage plays, Madea plays for huge broad laughs based on violent threats and mispronunciation of common words, but mostly derived from the fact that it’s the six feet tall Perry sporting large fake breasts and a dress. Those in this camp of criticism like to draw parallels between Perry’s work and that of minstrel shows that played to the most egregious stereotypes of black people to produce laughter for largely white audiences (though Perry’s audience is mostly black).

There are still others who say, who cares? Some people, like perpetual antagonist and famous black conservative John McWhorter, argue that Perry is not doing anything we haven’t seen before, and he should be cut some slack. Besides, it is proclaimed, he is making work for black actors and actresses that wouldn’t otherwise be available. He made a way where there was none, working from homelessness and poverty all the way to multimillionaire status and super-stardom, and he achieved it all on his own terms. His marketing and business savvy is impeccable and worthy of emulation and respect. Don’t knock the hustle, so his supporters seem to say. To that, those of us who have problems with Perry retort: successful businessman, yes, but at what expense? Is it worth it to have black people appear on screen and one black man became insanely wealthy if the cost is going to be a catalogue of poorly written, poorly directed, badly acted films that draw on the worst stereotypes that define the ‘black experience’? Perry has little regard for the process of filmmaking; his movies often come across as though he simply shot the first draft an ill-advised script.

What precedent does that set for future artists? And the fact that he refuses to even acknowledge critiques of his work belies an arrogance that is even more dangerous. To simply brush critics aside as ‘haters’ without consideration means he has no interest in growth as writer/director. His business and marketing acumen may be up to snuff, but what does that mean if he’s going to use it to produce and promote films of low-quality?

It’s hardly W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington, but it is a highly volatile debate in the black community. It’s art vs. business. It’s image vs. entertainment. It’s the same ol’, same ol’.

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For his part, Perry has generally stayed out of the debate, choosing instead to simply make his films and cater to the audience that shows up at the theaters and not those who don’t put money in his pockets. It’s smart business, to be sure, but artistically deficient.

However, something must have touched a nerve recently, as Perry lashed out in a press conference for the premiere of his latest film Madea’s Big Happy Family, responding to criticism leveled against him by writer/director Spike Lee a few years ago, calling Perry’s films ‘coonery.’ “Spike Lee can go straight to hell!” Perry is quoted saying to the press. He then went on to compare the criticism he faces to that of legendary black female writer Zora Neale Hurston.

Perry is no Hurston…not even close. Hurston crafted stories about three-dimensional characters using the dialect of the region in which these stories took place and explored themes of womanhood, spirituality, race and a people’s connection to home. Perry makes jokes about slapping women while dressed up in drag. I understand the parallel he wants to draw, but he’s off base in the worst possible way.

Are any of his critics or fans completely right? No. One can find validity in any of these arguments, which is part of what makes them so intriguing. So long as Perry makes films, I anticipate the debate will continue. Love him or hate him, he gets us thinking and talking, and maybe that will be his greatest legacy of all.