Scattered Thoughts on Tyler Perry

by Latoya Peterson

Bringing up Tyler Perry tends to complicate conversations.  He is a polarizing figure, represented by his work, an entrepreneur who provides work for black actors often passed over by the Hollywood machine, yet who trades in what some would call limiting representations of blackness and/or stereotypes.  He is often touted as proof that blacks can achieve success outside of the mainstream, and yet speaking with those who have worked for him in below the line positions casts doubt that Perry is dedicated to anything outside of making (and keeping) money.

Still, as Tyler Perry keeps making headlines, we continue to wade through these conversations, which involve his work but are really conversations about race, class, and gender.

A couple of weeks ago, while guesting over at Jezebel, I was asked to write a piece on Tyler Perry being tapped to write, direct, and produce a film based on Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf.”

I was immediately skeptical.

As I wrote on Jezebel,

It’s a complex, nuanced piece, and seeing Tyler Perry getting a writing credit gives me serious pause.

Directing? Fine.

Producing? Cool.

But writing and adapting it? From someone who writes flat, two-dimensional woman characters in all of his work? Even under the best of circumstances, I would be skeptical of a black man tackling a project like this. To bring Shange’s vision to light would take an understanding of why this work of art is so deeply intertwined with black women’s articulation of their own struggles under racist, patriarchal oppression – something that unfortunately, many still deny to this day. Black women’s voices are often lost in discussions of race (because all the blacks are men) and discussions of gender (because all women are white) and Ntozake Shange was beyond brave to put down all of these ideas and present them for public consumption even in the face of heavy criticism from black men when the play was released:

    [T]his is the second round of a debate sparked in 1976 by the blockbuster success of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. It spread with the publication of Michelle Wallace’s Black Macho and Myth of the Superwoman (1980). These two works were the subject of widespread and acrimonious debate from many sectors of the black community. Vernon Jarret of the Chicago Defender likened for colored girls to the pro-Ku Klux Klan film Birth of a Nation, and dismissed it as “a degrading treatment of the black male” and “a mockery of the black family.” Perhaps the most controversial statement about Shange and Wallace, however, was an article by Robert Staples, “The Myth of the Black Macho: A Response to Angry Black Feminists,” published in The Black Scholar in March/April 1979. Identified significantly as “the noted sociologist on black sex roles,” Staples reflects in his essay a tendency in the current debate (as in most discussions of Afro-American literature) to read literature in terms that are overwhelmingly sociological.

    Staples argues that Shange and Wallace were rewarded for “their diatribes against black men,” charging for colored girls with whetting black women’s “collective appetite for black male blood.” He attributes their rage, which “happily married women” lack, to “pent up frustrations which need release.” And he sympathizes with the black male need for power in the only two institutions left to black control: the church and the family. During the 1960s, Staples continues, “there was a general consensus – among men and women – that black men would hold the leadership positions in the movement.” Because “black women held up their men for far too long, it was time for the men to take charge.” But those like Shange and Wallace came under the powerful sway of the white feminist movement, he argues, they unleashed the anger that black women had always borne silently. For witnessing this anger, he concludes, they were promoted and rewarded by the white media.

This choreopoem is serious business, and it is not to be treated lightly, by those who do not live the story it tells.

I was not surprised by those who jumped into the fray to defend Tyler Perry. If they feel his work has artistic merit, they are welcome to do so. But I noticed a lot of the defenses weren’t “he’ll do a good job with this film and we need to have more faith.” They were more along the lines of “okay, well, he kind of sucks, but he’s the best we have and we need to support black film.”

After I finished the post, the perfect analogy came to mind:

09/04/09

When I was writing the post, I was focusing on making sure why people understood why this is a complicated issue.

But now I’ve thought of a better example. This is like Judd Apatow signing on to write and direct a film adaptation of the Vagina Monologues.

Could he do it? Possibly.

Does he show a past history of being good at conveying women’s stories? No.

Is he a successful filmmaker? Yes. Can he draw bigger crowd and more resources? Yes.

Does that mean he’s automatically the best person for the project just because he has some money? No.

Could Tyler Perry have read for colored girls and been deeply impacted? Of course, that’s a possibility.

But he isn’t just directing. He isn’t just producing. He’s writing the words for women to say and will be able to cut things add things and change things around. I’ve watched the majority of TP’s work (including the stage plays before he hit Hollywood). And his characters are improving, though they are still decidedly one note. But this is a big, big deal and a tough project. And I would feel much better if this were a situation like Push, where the film was written, done, and in the can when he decided to pick it up and distribute.

So, as I’ve said before, I’m torn.

But I would love to see Jilly from Philly in this, so there may be one silver lining.

A few days after I wrote that post, I stumbled across another piece on Tyler Perry on Esquire. The piece, titled “Why Tyler Perry Is the New Obama,” S.T. VanAirsdale argues:

All told, Tyler Perry is doing some profoundly next-level theorizing about race in the United States. The films are also funny, well-acted and entertaining; a little earnest, sure, and kind of cornball, but no worse than Love Happens or whatever Hollywood-establishment rom-com you’re dutifully tolerating this week. Ultimately, they boast a wide and, most importantly, multi-ethnic appeal well beyond the African-American audience that has made No. 1 openers out of four Perry films to date. In a real post-racial America, white viewers wouldn’t think twice about checking out I Can Do Bad, which should rather easily clinch the top spot at the box office on the eighth anniversary of 9/11.

But what specifically are black moviegoers buying into, and why does it so uniquely (if cautiously) yield the promise of a better America? You can start with Mabel “Madea” Simmons, the towering, muumuu-ed matriarch played by Perry himself. Routinely subject to critics’ outraged accusations of minstrelsy, Madea is guilty of nothing more than depoliticizing black rage. Madea Goes to Jail provides the quintessential example of this, offering Madea up as a career criminal (attempted murder, identity theft, insurance fraud, among other charges) whose chief motivation has always been little more than a sort of moral rectitude. No excuses, no apologies — but not in the glamorously transgressive hip-hop mold, nor the entitled, autonomous Dirty Harry style. Rather, she practices a funny, color-blind sense of justice advocating direct action and personal responsibility at any cost.

I’m interested in your thoughts, readers. I recently attended a wedding where Why Did I Get Married? was shown as part of the entertainment, and it damn near turned into a call and response session with both men and women yelling at the screen and advising or dissing the characters. I personally find it easier to analyze Perry through the lens of his work, and my analysis often heavily favors gender politics – which makes for interesting conversation (to say the least) as much of Tyler Perry’s base is composed of black women who agree with his messages.