Who is Tyler Perry, and Why Do the Cultural Elites Hate Him?
When you mention the name Tyler Perry to white people, you receive a blank stare. When you mention the name to Black people, there is a clear sign of recognition and admiration. Perry is a non-entity in the general (read: White) culture – and that includes the elite Liberal culture as well – but because of his immense success inside the Black community, he is regularly featured on the covers of magazines like Ebony and Jet which has made him a celebrity of sorts.
Why is it that Perry, who owns a movie and theater production company that is perhaps one of the largest and most successful of its type in America, is unknown to White people?
Last year I reviewed Perry’s breakthrough film “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” Perry came to make the film after many years of hard and arduous work writing and producing plays in what continues to remain of the so-called “Chitlin’ circuit”; a chain of theaters exclusively catering to the Black community. In an America where race continues to play an important but often neglected factor in the national dialogue, Perry sought to create an independent movement based on characters and stories that resonated in the Black cultural consciousness.
Perry integrated into his stories the bedrock elements of Black life in America; elements often ignored or marginalized by the predominantly White mainstream. In “Diary of a Mad Black Housewife,” the culmination of his thematic explorations within a Black cultural framework, Perry based his writing on the centrality of the Black family and the historic Black Church. Implicit in his thematic approach was a critique not only of White ignorance of this culture, but the appropriation within the mainstream of a counterfeit culture, Hip-Hop, that has been promoted and co-opted by White media, White youth culture, and White intellectuals as the “authentic” manifestation of Black consciousness.
Perry’s polemic was not Liberal or Conservative; Democrat or Republican; Red or Blue. It was simply an articulation of what I have termed a Black vernacular for a contemporary audience. His success has shown that Black audiences understand very well the existence of what the cultural critic Stanley Crouch has called a new Black “minstrelsy”; a degraded and degrading form of expression that restores to White America stereotypes of the Black stud, wild miscegenation, extreme sexuality, gaudy promises of violence, and the degradation of Black women.
Hip-Hop culture has become ubiquitous in America and all over the world through a global network of media purveyors that have found a financial mother-lode in the presentation of the degrading and stereotypical images of Blacks that float from MTV to BET to the New York Times and beyond. Hip-Hop artists such as Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, 50 Cent and others too numerous to recount here, have been feted not merely in the commercial market which feeds off of their immoral and profane posturing, but have also been lauded by elite (mostly White) critics who have lost all sense of moral context in their socio-cultural assessments.
Black observers like Michael Eric Dyson have been all too happy to make this about a progressive Black politics as if the artists and their audiences were downtrodden and oppressed individuals. Indeed, the culture of MTV’s program “Cribs” brings together a slovenly African-American moneyed class that is as ignorant and amoral as it is wealthy and comfortable. The revolution, contrary to its first practitioners, can in fact be sold off to the highest bidder.
While many young Blacks languish in an ever-expanding prison system – new prisons cannot be built fast enough to house them – a mythical culture of Bling and Thug Life remains a ubiquitous presence on television screens the world over. The Rapper Jay-Z proclaims that he is “Big Pimpin’” and extols a dream-like universe where women exist to fill diamond-studded wine goblets and service men with sexual favors. Many Black people intuitively understand that this Hip-Hop world, like Sports and other forms of celebrity, is a quick ride to the top. Rather than seeing Black communal existence in terms of building capital and networking the system to create community-wide prosperity, many Blacks have often capitulated to the easy money that is offered by a corporate culture, controlled by White elites, to put on a “Sambo” show.
Getting back to Michael Eric Dyson and others like him, we can see that Black intellectuals have too been corrupted by the system. Asserting in his books and his many media appearances that Hip-Hop is a true art form, Dyson extols the brutal primitivism of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. as a form of Black poetic genius, rather than mark it for what it is: the sad degeneration of organically Black forms of art into a marketable context that serves to tame the truly subversive nature of revolutionary Black discourse.
Sadly, Dyson is all too aware that the Black intellectual is beholden to the marketplace and has sold out the gains of the 1960s and 70s when Black culture, through its music, literature and film, was bursting with creativity and passionate energy. In those years artists like James Brown, Melvin Van Peebles, Sly Stone, Gordon Parks, Jr., Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Toni Morrison blazed new trails for Black artists. And when Rap music first began, the same impulses were at play: the work of Run-DMC and Public Enemy absorbed and restated many of the Black Power concepts of the past and brought those concerns to a new audience hungry for history and culture.
But something happened on the way to the acceptance of the new culture by the White mainstream.
A new form of Rap music was created called Gangster Rap which reached back into the racist past and promoted vulgar anti-humanist stereotypes of Black men as drug dealers and sex-crazed maniacs. Part of the rhetoric overlay of this new art form was the concept of “Keepin’ it Real.” This rhetoric of realism asserted that what groups like N.W.A. were saying and promoting was the reality of the Black community.
The vast gains of the Civil Rights struggle were sublimated and a restored version of Segregation was now deployed in a new cultural world that based itself on the ubiquitous prison culture that continued to insidiously wreak havoc on the Black community.
Rather than fight the stereotypes, as Public Enemy tried to do, Gangster Rap luxuriated in them. A new fashion sense developed which made prison sartorial mores chic. A double game was being played: on the one hand, Black performers pretended to be criminals while on the other hand they were amassing unheard of amounts of wealth and becoming upwardly mobile.
Like Stepin’ Fetchit and Hattie MacDaniel of a bygone age, the Hip Hop performers acted like slaves in order to placate their White corporate bosses, but in reality, as Robert Townsend pointed out so expertly in his classic film “Hollywood Shuffle,” these were people who were now solidly Middle Class and were living lives of ease and stability – afforded to them by recreating the role of “Nigger” for predominantly White suburban audiences that enjoyed seeing Blacks as oversexed, gun-toting brutes.
The degradation of the Hip Hop world has become such a commercial juggernaut that few in the media are able to resist it. Making things more complicated is that the critique of the Hip Hop world is more or less limited to vulgar reactionaries like Bill O’Reilly who is not exactly an accepted voice in the Liberal community. The attempt to read Hip Hop culture in serious intellectual terms is an ongoing project among the elite media. The New York Times regularly features stories on its Arts pages of Rappers whose image reflects the criminal mentality that is a cancer in the Black world. On its News and Opinion pages, the Times will argue that the scourge of crime and violence is a malignant blight on the Black community caused by poverty and racism. While this is true enough, cultural critics simply ignore the realities of the journalistic investigations and blatantly repeat the canards of the corporate entities and give a free pass to the Hip Hop world.
Tyler Perry made his reputation and his fortune by writing stories that reflect Black life as it is. While Spike Lee has continued to struggle trying to tell Black stories in a believable way, Perry is quite deft at recreating in his work the basic realities of Black life: women are oppressed and vulnerable, men are often brutal and self-absorbed, old people struggle to be respected, families are falling apart. All the while we see young people falling off the rails, seduced by the money of the Hip Hop culture and the world of Sports and the quick buck. Underlying Perry’s stories is the reality of the Black Family and its rootedness in the historic Black Church; the Church that formed the base of operations for the Civil Rights movement.
“Diary of a Mad Black Woman” was made in the form of a Screwball Comedy set in a Negro context: Perry created a group of characters that he would return to time and again and which would serve as the anchor for his narratives. Madea was a Black matriarch who was the Don Corleone of the community. She would right wrongs and make things work. She was a merciless and unsparing disciplinarian who used whatever means at her disposal to correct what she saw as wrong. Madea was an unashamed moralist who put family and ethical integrity first. In addition to Madea, Perry created Uncle Joe and Brian, a father and son, Madea’s brother and nephew, who represent the ways in which Black life has advanced: Uncle Joe is a doddering and rude old man who does little but criticize others while his son Brian is a rich and successful lawyer who has remained true to his beliefs and principles.
Using these three characters – all of whom Perry himself plays in the film – as a pivot, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” looks critically at the ways in which money, power and status has undermined morality in the Black family. Rather than anchoring Black life in the values of African-American Christian humanism, the film argues that too many Black people chase wealth in order to create their own status which they then utilize to hurt their friends and neighbors and divide them from others rather than, as Madea argues, to unite and bring family and community together. The ubiquitous presence of the Church restores a semblance of balance by the way that it infuses the hearts and minds of the courageous – those who refuse the Bling as they refuse selfishness and cruelty – with the values of repentance, humility and devotion to self and others.
The cultural elite hated “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.”
Having already worked to demean the heritage of the old Hollywood classics, the critics refused Perry’s synthesis of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Pam Grier, Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor. In addition, Perry was keen to keep the trappings of the film “old school.” This meant that the songs on the film’s soundtrack – many written by Perry, himself an auteur of the old school – were unashamedly melodic epics that hearkened back to the classic Soul tradition of Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Eschewing the mechanized and soulless trappings of Hip Hop, Perry was making a pointed statement to his audience: the universe of his films was the world of African-American culture set in a richly textured and deeply passionate framework that extolled intelligence and morality above cleverness and effect; a world that Spike Lee tapped into in his “The Original Kings of Comedy” which has provided a strikingly rich template for the sort of comedy that Tyler Perry has trafficked in.
Perry drew from the richness of the African-American past and refused to pander to the whims and perquisites of the Thug life that was a sham created simply to sell product. His work was lauded in the Black community while Whites were busy praising and bankrolling 50 Cent.
In his follow-up to “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” Perry tops himself and restores his unique vision of a Black world where people work for a living and struggle to remain decent and compassionate human beings. The anger at the film “Madea’s Family Reunion” has been even more pointed than the earlier dismissals.
“Madea’s Family Reunion” is a modern Screwball masterpiece. Like the classic films of Capra, Sturges and Hawks from the 1930s and 40s, Perry mixes slapstick with the heartrending emotionalism that was so central a part of the American comedic tradition. From Twain to Chaplin to Capra, American comedy has been as much about raw emotion as it has been about farce. Tears of joy are mingled in this tradition with tears of sorrow. Perry is perhaps the most convincing heir to the writerly tradition of Preston Sturges and Ben Hecht that we have today. His dialogue crackles and his comedic situations are rife with dramatic dignity. Like the old Hollywood classics “Madea’s Family Reunion” often mixes tragedy with hilarity in order to elevate its characters in their struggle to live with integrity and empathy. Often a character will break out into a didactic speech as William Powell did in “My Man Godfrey” or James Stewart did in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
And while the pretentious film critics find fault with all the moralizing, Perry is simply inscribing himself within a very long and noble tradition of artists who grappled with the complexities of the human experience and came out triumphant. Rather than place guns and drugs into the hands of his protagonists, like 50 Cent in “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” and Eminem in “8 Mile,” Perry goes back to the 1970s Black tradition and echoes the Blaxploitation ethics of Pam Grier, the mania of Flip Wilson, and the grit of “Good Times.” While the shameless provocateur and serial exploiter Quentin Tarantino appropriates the 1970s Black culture for racist purposes – keepin’ it real – Tyler Perry carefully sketches a group of three-dimensional Black characters that we rarely if ever see on our movie screens. Without shame and without fear, Perry lays out a binary plot of two sisters – different fathers, same mother – who take radically different paths to find meaning in their lives.
The two sisters represent opposing options for women in the Black community: one sister is engaged to an investment banker, played expertly by Blair Underwood of “L.A. Law,” who beats her and threaten to kill her when she tries to leave him and break off the engagement. The other sister has two out-of-wedlock children and has been forced for financial reasons to move back in with her aunt Madea. This sister meets up with a bus driver who wants to date her. The bus driver is a man who presents himself as a “Christian” – Perry-encoded language for a decent man – while the young woman is seen battling her mother who has basically written her off in favor of her sister who has the brighter financial future – albeit one that will leave her physically vulnerable and morally bankrupt.
Here Perry returns to his poor vs. rich binarism where being rich is shorthand for cruel and slovenly and poor means to be the salt of the earth and to have the proper moral and spiritual values. It is a coded Christian message to the Black community – which has most certainly understood and appreciated its frankness – that money without morality and proper values is worthless and where people who are happy with their portion are the truly content.
Hovering over the story is Madea and the sisters’ mother. The characters, in classic Screwball fashion, are opposed to one another with the venality of the mother, wonderfully played by another great veteran Lynn Whitfield, seen in contrast to Madea’s eccentric but lovable matriarch. At the beginning of the film Madea is in court – as she so frequently is – answering to a charge that she has removed her security ankle bracelet. In order to get out of the charge, Madea is given a young girl as a foster child. We see Madea actually hitting the child in order to keep her in line and providing her with the security and discipline that allows her to thrive as a person. Again, implicit here is the idea that “old school” Black culture – strong discipline based on absolute moral values – is the desideratum in spite of what passes as political correctness today.
Perry is obsessive about Black culture. From the songs on the soundtrack to the explicit ways in which he lays out the realities of Black life in a world where Black people are seduced away from self-empowerment by the wiles of attaining success – money – at any price, his stories reinforce the power of self-discipline and hard work. The characters who go for the quick buck are chastised while those who keep their nose to the grindstone are rewarded with a richly meaningful life. Absent from the narrative is any mention of racism or anti-Black prejudice. In Tyler Perry’s world there are only Black people – nary a White face appears in the movie – who are asked to take responsibility for their own lives.
In the centerpiece of the film, the family reunion brings together the Simmons family matriarch, a 96 year-old woman who brings the new generation to visit her home which was bought by her own parents from their former slave-owners! In this section – one that seemed to cause apoplexy in the critics who found it misplaced in the film – the poet Maya Angelou appears as a sacred spiritual presence while Cicely Tyson – Miss Jane Pittman of old – who was also in “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” makes a speech that seems to have been lifted verbatim from Bill Cosby’s controversial polemic on Black life to a Philadelphia audience that caused so much commotion last year.
Tyson’s speech comes after Perry shows the despicable behavior of the young people at the Simmons family reunion. Panning his camera to show us young men playing dice and young women gyrating in imitation of Hip Hop videos, the regret and anger on the faces of the older generation is apparent. Tyson is given an eloquent and deeply moving soliloquy that chastises the young generation for forgetting the past and the struggles that led them to where they are today. Rather than build on the solid foundations of the past – a past that was achieved by the blood, sweat and tears of those committed to taking Black people out of their misery and suffering – these young people have embraced a culture of narcissism and hedonism that has made them oblivious to the greatness of their forbears and forgetful of their history and culture.
In a moment of great solemnity and gravitas delivered in stentorian cadence by Tyson, an actor of great depth, the children are dressed down while they are told who they are and where they come from. It is a bold rhetorical move that breaks the carcinogenic spell of the drug culture and Thug world of the “Gangsta” and the degraded Bling existence of vulgarity and idle materialism that suffuses the Black community in our day. Perry is arguing that there is another, richer and far more substantial world – ignored by White people, the economic masters of Black people – that can come from study and analysis of who Black people really are and where they come from.
In an American culture that is front-loaded with ignorance, selfishness and self-gratification, Tyler Perry has created an alternative universe – much closer to the reality of how his community lives out its prosaic life – where wisdom and civility must trump cruelty and ignorance.
Such is a message that resonates in the African-American world, but is strangely seen as “inauthentic” by White elites. Perry’s Madea is pigeonholed as a “fake” where 50 Cent, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Jay-Z are all lauded as authentically Black artists. This situation shows why it is that “Madea’s Family Reunion” was widely panned by critics and why it has continued Perry’s massive success among Black audiences. White people follow the lead of the tastemakers in Hollywood and New York who have argued that Black culture as currently understood must rightly exclude the thematic concerns of Tyler Perry, even as Perry has created an art that resonates with the motifs and style of the classic Hollywood film and has become wildly successful in the Black world.
White Liberals, I suppose, think that they know Black people better than Black people know themselves.
Such smug paternalism permeates the White Liberal world where image trumps substance and where effect trumps wisdom and cleverness trumps morality. An artist like Tyler Perry should be given the respect due to a person of such prodigious talents, but in fact it is the opposite: scorn is heaped on his movies. Even the conservative-leaning Stanley Crouch, who consistently rails against Hip Hop culture, has criticized Perry for the inauthentic nature of his images and demanded that he be more like the great playwright August Wilson. Not to take anything away from Mr. Wilson, whose plays have been very important in the articulation of an organic Black voice in American culture, but the addition of Mr. Perry’s voice into the mix provides us with yet another perspective on what it means to be Black in America today. Where Mr. Wilson remains wedded to the high literary tradition of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, Tyler Perry is a popular entertainer following in the footsteps of the Hollywood masters and the Black filmmakers of the 1970s as well as artists as disparate as Sidney Poitier, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby.
His is an art that is grounded in the cultural depth of the African-American tradition which looks to God and morality as a major factor in survival. Like Dr. King and Malcolm X, Perry reaches into the depth of the moral life in order to seek answers to the questions most important to Black people. Rejecting the morality of Hip Hop culture which he has laid out as an impotent, chaotic and ultimately damaging way of life, Perry has restored family values and religious discipline to a Black world which has never actually forgotten them. It is only the spurious world of Hip Hop culture as mediated through racist Caucasian sensibilities that has unmoored the rich traditions of African-American culture and substituted for them new and disturbing rituals which have come to signify the realities of African-American life for those who get their reality from MTV, Suge Knight, and the NBA.
Tyler Perry is an American genius whose voice is rarely heard outside the Black community. As with the recent tirades against Ralph Ellison stemming from the jaundiced book written by Arnold Rampersad – a full frontal assault on Ellison for his refusal to accept the political correctness of the post-Civil Rights Black intelligentsia – so too can we understand the animus against Tyler Perry and his brilliant vision for Black America as a struggle over who will represent the Black community. While Rampersad’s profoundly negative assessment dovetails with Michael Eric Dyson’s Gangster Rap apologetics, the profound and sincere jeremiads of Tyler Perry against the detritus of Black life as it is currently situated have resonated in the community itself. While we would not wish to minimize the wonderful work being done by dedicated activists in the Black community, we must not ignore or demonize the robust visions of Tyler Perry and the significance of his success as an African-American artist of rare integrity. Swimming against the tide of political correctness and laying out a comprehensive vision of a Black future that encompasses history, morality and devotion, Perry has stood tall in his affirmation of the goodness of Black people and the positive nature of their character.
In a world where character, integrity, morality and independent-mindedness have become quaint remnants of a forgotten world, the work of an artist like Tyler Perry recalls the wonder and charm of American Humanists like Harold Lloyd, Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, and even George Cukor’s proto-feminist sensibility; a noble artistic vision that we must all rediscover and partake of. His moral fables are not simply parochial statements of Black life, but are universal statements of a world where Justice must triumph over Evil, where Right defeats Wrong, where Good people stand while Bad people fall.
It is in the midst of such a vision that we can best express the fullest sense of our own humanity rather than be strangled by the trappings of what is commonly seen as success. Seeking the humble kindnesses of the Religious Humanism that has been preserved by the African-American Church will restore for us a world that is suffused with what in Hebrew is called “Hesed”; a form of compassion and loving-kindness that we must continue to strive to achieve in order to make our world a better and more dignified place to live.