It’s been well over a decade of criticisms from fellow directors and respected critics alike, and Tyler Perry will not stop making films. It seems that no matter what, Perry will go on making films until the day he dies.
The reason why this is a problem stems from the constant criticism itself. If Perry can keep on making films that are 1) successful and 2) employ mostly black casts and crews, then why is this an issue? Some detractors point to the lampooning of black archetypes, his overuse of religion or the underlying sexism in many of his films.
To tackle all these detractions, one has to go back to Perry’s childhood. Perry had it rough when he was a child. His father would beat him, to the point that Perry attempted suicide. Beyond the beatings, he later revealed that he was also molested as a child.
In opposition to his father, his mother would take him to church and was a focal point of ease and peace in his life, something later reflected in his work.
After dropping out of high school, Perry would eventually go on to get his GED. Later in his life, he would begin writing after watching The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Perry would go on to write the play, “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” which he self-financed with his life savings. The play did not get good reviews, but he persisted, rewriting the play and having it played multiple times. In the process, he amassed a large African-American audience.
Flash forward and Perry is not only famous and rich, but he writes, produces, directs and stars in movies which speak to black audiences and employ a marginalized group of people in an overly marginalizing industry.
Perry is, on paper, a great figure in the African-American community.
The issue arises in the criticisms of his film, the ones that call his films harmful to black archetypes, the ones that call his films religious rantings of an ideologue or pieces of innately sexist trash. More on this later …
His most recent film, “Boo! A Madea Halloween,” somehow upset the box office, coming in number one in its second week, beating out the Tom Hanks film, “Inferno.”
This made me curious, sending me on a journey into the realm of Tyler Perry. I went and saw it.
I was of course biased by all the bad press on Perry’s films. I also thought that it was a little weird that he would incessantly dress as a woman. But I was surprised.
I was set to see a really dumb Halloween comedy, something in the vein of a Disney film which (literally) capitalizes on a holiday. Thirty minutes into the film, however, and there was hardly even a serious mention of Halloween. It functioned rather as a setting for the themes Perry wished to explore.
The film explored themes that can be found in almost any award-winning film: Themes of family, age, wisdom and unconditional love.
Obviously, the film is pitched as a comedy with a man dressed as a woman, but Perry knows what he’s doing. He uses Madea to be able to write about these things and get people watch it.
The film revolves around the family of Brian, played by Perry himself, a single father with a teenage daughter. His daughter, Tiffany, wants to go to a party with much older, and sexually aggressive men. Perry is justifiably against the idea, but he can’t take care of the issue himself, so he calls in Madea.
Madea functions as what some would call the “beloved matriarch,” the wise old woman that helps the younger people in the story gain wisdom.
Bringing with her some friends, Madea intends to help out Brian and Tiffany.
Beyond the shenanigans and the higher themes, the film even exhibits some postmodern moments of metacriticism within the narrative and some topical nods toward the clown sightings across the country.
The story is about a father trying to teach his children to be good people in a world he might not fully understand. It is also about how old-time teachings can be applied to today’s issues.
To make a long story short, Madea’s wisdom helps Brian learn how to be a better father, even though he initially didn’t want to adapt Madea’s older way of thinking to his own. Tiffany is better off and has learned a lesson. Madea didn’t even have to save her, she did it herself. And Madea remains a strong matriarchal figure.
Suffice it to say, I was completely surprised by this realization that Perry was not a complete hack like Adam Sandler, someone Perry has been compared to.
So what does this mean?
Well, for one, it doesn’t seem that the archetype of a wise “beloved matriarch” is harmed in any way. Rather, she is humanized. The character of Madea has flaws, has seen the streets, but still has practical wisdom. Her friends, all old black people, are humanized as well: they are sexually active, have done drugs and are prone to lying. The whole group is a very realistic take on the archetypes, and in a way are actually very progressive.
Secondly, the idea that his films are religious rantings is kind of crazy. If he has religious themes in his films, that’s fine, many people do just that all the time. Perry isn’t ranting when he incorporates Christian themes or imagery into his films, he actually does it quite tamely. Perry is actually religious too, so why wouldn’t his films reflect that?
Lastly, the idea that his films are sexist might have some basis. Apparently his film “Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counsel,” does have some sexist undertones about marriage and gender roles. My response to that is if directors like Woody Allen or Roman Polanski are not actively attacked for literally molesting people, then why is Perry attacked for making something that is not fully politically correct? I know that it’s beside the point, but I think that Perry is redeemable. He can learn from it, but people like Allen and Polanski have gone beyond redemption in the realm of pop-culture.
So we have Perry being a self-made artist who faced strong hardships, who has made art directly for the African-American community and is doing all this on his own dime most of the time. He’s everything that should be respected.
So why is he hated? Is he too conventional? Are his films to kitschy or too dumbed down?
Well, Kerry James Marshall, an acclaimed contemporary artist once made a whole series of paintings in which African-Americans are depicted in kitschy and cliched settings and frames. Marshall believed that this would add to a stunted culture which didn’t represent African Americans in any way besides in stereotypes.
Perry might be doing something like this. His films, although not high quality, are still adding to black culture.
I’m not saying he’s the best director ever and he’s not the best African-American figure ever. Rather he is an African-American pop-culture figure, with all of his surface level inanities, all of his political correctness shortfalls and all of his deeper meanings sprinkled throughout his pop art.