Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a two-part opinion series on Spike Lee’s criticisms of the film industry and Tyler Perry’s complicated relationship with black moviegoers. Yesterday’s installment focused on why Terrell Jermaine Starr feels Spike Lee’s recent outbursts make the film producer a certified hater.
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I had no idea who Tyler Perry was when I first saw him perform in his stage play “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” at the Fox Theater in Detroit 11 years ago. A friend of mine had some extra tickets and invited me to see this tall Black man dress up as a sassy pistol-packing grandma named “Madea.”
“It’s really good,” my friend told me. “You gotta come see it.”
With nothing to do that night, I reluctantly said, Yes, but my expectations were rather low. Neither Eddie Murphy’s “Nutty Professor” nor Martin Lawrence’s “Big Mama’s House” tickled my fancy, so I was not expecting much nourishment from seeing another brotha dramatize our already hyper-stereotyped Black women.
But, quite surprisingly, the play’s pronounced Christian themes and “I-can-do-all-things-through-Christ” narrative evoked the worst memories of my teenage battles of low self-esteem and bouts with an emotionally and physically abusive relative. More importantly, the play made me believe I could actually heal inside and share my newfound joy, unashamedly, with the rest of the world.
When Perry walked out onstage dressed in fresh Air Force Ones, jeans, and a well-fitted print sweater, the shoulder-to-shoulder packed audience erupted in thunderous applause. And so did I.
“Hollywood doesn’t know who you are and doesn’t care to know you,” he said. “Thank you so much for coming out to support this play and I have much more in store for you.” He spoke several minutes more before thanking us again and leaving the stage with his small yet committed cast of Black actors and actresses.
I bet no one in the audience thought that Perry would go on to turn that gospel-infused stage drama into a multimillion-dollar media empire. That succes was to go to the highly educated John Singletons and Spike Lees of the world — not Perry, a high school dropout without a single academic credit from a fancy film school in L.A. or New York.
(He did eventually earn his GED.)
Somehow Perry, who spent time living in his car while trying to transfer his notebook-written script to a stage, found his own audience, cultivated it, and made films that drew them into theaters nationwide by the millions. Unlike many Black directors before him, Perry didn’t look to Hollywood for approval. He sought and earned the support of a particular segment of the African-American community that affords him the independence to film and finance his own films in Atlanta, however he wishes, without needing a single dime from an L.A. studio.
Unlike Spike Lee, Perry’s sharpest critic (and hater), he didn’t waste time “fighting the power.” He sought the support of his own people and became a power broker instead.
Tyler Perry doesn’t try and cast his films with highly paid actors and actresses he cannot afford to pay. He hires great talent and keeps them working. His directorial taste is indeed an acquired one, but as one critic says, “[His films] are a force of nature.”
And I am certainly not suggesting that we should support Perry just because he is Black. You do not have to like his films. (I mean, not every white person likes Quentin Tarantino.)
Still, critics shouldn’t denigrate his work just because it doesn’t reflect Afro-centric renditions of Shakespeare, and they shouldn’t chalk up his success to “the white man has anointed him the Negro of Hollywood because he creates films that make Blacks look like buffoons.”
Remember, the brotha is based in Georgia.
What these critics fail to consider is that it is Perry that brings Black audiences to the box office. He does not ask White executives in California to do that for him. But even as Perry racks in strong box office numbers and continues to maintain a devoted fan base, his films are criticized for having weak character development, being poorly written, and lacking intellectual depth.
For many people, Perry will never be good enough. But Perry doesn’t care about many people. He cares about a particular segment of his people. In turn, they love and support him unconditionally.
Rather than critiquing his films and wondering, “Why does Perry do so well making these “crappy movies,’” you should be asking him, “How do I get millions of people to support my work just like they support your work?”
It is the distinction in these two questions that determines whether you are a business man or simply jealous. Or more accurately, a hater. Many people commented in my Spike Lee article that Perry’s critics are not haters. Perhaps, but if you are still confused, let me break it down for you:
Objective critic: “I do not like the way Black women are often depicted as down-trodden sistas struggling to get over herself to find a good, educated Black man who actually likes sistas. There needs to be more intellectual development in his female characters.”
Hater: “I made a film about dignified African Americans and Black folks didn’t come see it, but they go see Tyler Perry.”
See the difference?
Perry may never be considered a candidate for an Oscar or Golden Globe. Most successful directors aren’t, and to be honest, I do not think Perry really cares. I am sure he would be pleased if his work one day earns one of those golden statuettes, but you don’t see him crying or cussing to high heaven about it, do you?
When reporters asked Perry why he didn’t go the Hollywood route, he replied, “I didn’t want to play the game.” So he became a game changer. And if you do not like the “games” Perry has created, fine. Don’t hate the playa.’ And don’t even hate the game. Create your own.
And on that note, may Madea say, “Amen,” and “Halleluyer.”
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