By Guest Contributor Christopher Keith Johnson
All of the things I had grown accustomed to in the US were engaged often and early in my move to South Africa. I felt right at home after experiencing housing discrimination in my apartment search. Seeing airports filled with white travelers, while bus stations overflowed with folks who looked like me. It all seemed so familiar. South Africa was a long way from being post-racial. I could deal with that. I came from that.
What was pleasantly surprising was the level of activist engagement of the South African people. The documentaries I had seen were capturing something real. From service delivery protests to pushback against Wal-Mart’s acquisition of South Africa’s largest retailer, the people were not afraid to protest—nonviolently and otherwise.
South Africans won’t let you off the hook easily. In my role directing programming between the largest American trade union and its counterparts in West African, more than a few meetings with partners ended with tough questions about U.S. foreign policy and my employer’s take on positions supported by the American government. One had to be quick on the toes to navigate queries on Palestine, Israel, and Cuba. The activist community in which I had to engage expected that I would be able to respond to issues and concerns in and outside of Africa. As the only G20 member on the continent, politics beyond its borders mattered to my South African counterparts.
With the above in mind, I was wholly unprepared to be faced with the popularity of Tyler Perry in South Africa.
I would have rather tried to explain why it was mandatory for U.S. presidential candidates to be well received at The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), than to be questioned on whether I had female family members who acted like Madea. I would have rather been forced to justify the US embargo of Cuba, than address if I knew brothers back home who acted like the characters played by Steve Harris and Blair Underwood in Perry’s films.
I couldn’t understand it. How could there not be some manner of South African backlash against what any sane person could only interpret as old-school buffoonery? Surely the nuanced political debates taking place in South Africa would create an environment where an anti-Perry campaign would move from the global South northwards. What was wrong? How could this be? Why were the theaters filled with black people at every showing of Perry’s films in Johannesburg?
Then I took a close look at South African primetime television. The networks were dominated by soap operas. The evenings were ruled by Generations, Isidingo, Muvhango, Scandal!, Rhythm City, 7de Laan and later, InKaba and The Wild, with more in development. I had moved to a country obsessed with the very type of broad, one-dimensional, man-hating, woman-beating, dysfunctional characters that populate Tyler Perry’s cinematic landscape. The only things missing were the gospel music at the closing, tragic mulatto or her stand-in, and a protagonist in drag. (That many of the South African programs were created by white production companies should be the subject of another essay.) What was clear was that South Africa provided fertile ground for the transmission of Mr. Perry’s particular style of African-Americana.
But perhaps escape was the point. Could a country where life expectancy was decreasing and unemployment increasing, widely embrace anything but what was easily digestible, devoid of challenge, and fun? Getting slapped upside the head translates into the 11 official South African languages much more easily than the work of Charles Burnett.
Maybe South Africans were applying their minds to what was relevant to their day-to-day existence. They were too busy addressing post-apartheid inequalities in almost weekly service delivery protests. They were tied up marching for higher wages, benefits, lower fuel, and food prices. They were a bit busy commuting from distant townships to employment in cities that they could not afford to live in. Their thoughts were consumed with whether the education provided to their children was enough to prepare them for the present and future economy. They needed a vacation, but in lieu of that, they would settle for mindless entertainment. They had enough to worry about.
It wasn’t Perry’s weak character development that was packing the movie halls alone. Those poorly drawn characters were arguing, fussing, fighting, loving, dancing, eating, and just plain living in nice homes with big kitchens and late model cars in the driveway. Even as a G20 country, you’d probably have to go back half a century in the U.S. to match the black poverty rate in South Africa. Living in a country with an official unemployment rate of about 25 percent and more in the rural areas, seeing black folks living well on screen was maybe enough for many a black South African moviegoer.
But as I thought about it more, my vision of black progress in America was perhaps itself a fiction. Maybe Mr. Perry’s visualization was sufficient for my own people. Perhaps things weren’t as good as I had convinced myself to believe. It was possible that I hadn’t ventured far enough down the road from the graduate school gates or Northwest D.C. office buildings that I had worked in the years prior to my move. I don’t believe America to be post-racial, but I thought it long post-Ebony/Jet magazine uplift narrative.
Stepin Fetchit, Geraldine, and a host of other complicated, complex, and even downright degrading characters existed before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement. Their existence didn’t significantly impede the struggle. South Africans were perhaps viewing Mr. Perry’s films no different than they would The Hunger Games or The Avengers. This was fantasy. Their lived experience was not, and the only folks who seemed to want to see struggle on film in South Africa were those not living it. There must be a reason why Leon Schuster is arguably the most popular filmmaker in the country. By comparison, his work makes Why Did I Get Married, Too look like Eve’s Bayou or Killer of Sheep.
The differences in black audiences in the U.S. and South Africa can be found in an analysis of South Africa’s history and present. The African National Congress (ANC) is now the ruling party and, while progressive when compared to the Democratic or Republican Parties in the U.S., it simply cannot deliver all of the promises made when it was the driver of the liberation movement. Less than 20 years is clearly not enough time. That said, it has created policies worthy of critique. That critique is happening in a multiplicity of venues, including the street. Through vehicles such as labor unions, and student and community groups, the necessary pushback in any real democracy can be easily witnessed in South Africa. The election of the ANC as the ruling party did not turn that faucet off. Unlike the U.S., there is a mass movement of poor and working people who, as evidenced by the recent Lonmin Mineworkers strike in North West Province, are prepared to die for their beliefs.
Questionable narrative choices in cinema have less of an effect on those willing to take to the streets to right wrongs. Black America has arguably lost that willingness. Maybe Mr. Perry is delivering the entertainment that suits the times. Maybe this is the moviegoing experience that we deserve.
So had I been wrong all along about Tyler Perry? Had I been finally liberated from my extreme dislike of his work through an intercompany transfer to South Africa? No. But the move provided a different lens through which to view his films. Madea’s Witness Protection recently opened in South Africa. I’ll skip that but, if by chance Perry produces a sequel to Daddy’s Little Girls, I might buy a ticket.
Christopher Keith Johnson is the country program director for the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Abuja, Nigeria.