I see her hair first, an imposing globe of an Afro. From my perspective, just above her head, I watch enthralled as the top of her ’fro spins while she pirouettes on her way to the stage. Looking like the twenty-first-century love child of Billie Holiday and Angela Davis, she doesn’t just take the stage of the packed Atlanta nightclub, she takes command of it. She is an urban bush woman, her black minidress sliding dangerously off her left shoulder as she opens her mouth wide to belt out the Aretha Franklin classic “Rock Steady.” She roughs up the Queen of Soul’s smooth, finger-popping tune, giving it an intriguing edge. In this singer’s voice, I hear anguish and alcohol, urgency and yearning, and an audacity that is seductive. I want to know her story.
This is the opening scene of Tyler Perry’s 2009 film I Can Do Bad All by Myself
, and it is thrilling. But the fiery promise of this moment gets doused instantly by a quick cut to another woman—one whose silvery wig, oversized plastic glasses, and mannish chin are both amusing and unnerving. She’s on the other side of town, it’s the middle of the night, and intruders have startled her awake. “I know ain’t nobody breaking in this house,” she says, full of attitude. “Must be somebody new to the neighborhood if they gon’ break in my house.” It’s Madea. The thrill is gone.
The first woman, played by the always interesting Taraji P. Henson, tricks me into believing this is a movie for someone like me—an educated, thoughtful filmgoer who demands complexity and transcendence from my movies. But the appearance of Madea—played, as always, by Perry in drag—lets me know that the movie is aiming for a less demanding viewer, someone who’ll be satisfied with an uplifting message and a few good laughs.
Madea, a tough-talking but well-meaning matriarch, is a caricature of the strong black woman. As Perry presents her on-screen, she has little complexity; she is a sexless, friendless creature—all tough love, acerbic wit, and old-school wisdom. To be sure, those aren’t bad qualities in and of themselves, but they make the Madea movies lowbrow entertainment rather than thought-provoking cinema.
Tellingly, Madea disappears halfway through I Can Do Bad All by Myself—and, other than noticing the bad filmmaking that her sudden departure represents, I never miss her. Instead her disappearance highlights just how peripheral she is to the plot, mere comic relief to draw viewers into the more serious drama that Henson anchors. Henson’s character, April, is a boozy singer who just can’t seem to get herself together offstage. Madea’s home invaders, it turns out, are kids—April’s niece and nephews. The grandmother who takes care of them has gone missing, and they’re foraging for food. After giving them a beat-down, a tongue-lashing, and a good meal, Madea deposits the kids on April’s doorstep. Not the maternal type, April wants nothing to do with them. But Madea and some of the church folk—and the sudden appearance of a handsome stranger—eventually convince her to do the right thing. “Tyler’s title I Can Do Bad All by Myself is an excellent title for him because he does do bad all by himself,” quips cultural critic Touré.
The movie cycles through a series of predictable Tyler Perry tropes: the wounded woman, the sad child who needs protection, the predatory man. It is plagued by shallow writing, heavy-handed moralizing, the inevitable comeuppance for the bad guy, and more than one tear-jerking scene of redemption. In this movie, and throughout Perry’s oeuvre, the troubled woman solves her problems through the simplistic triumvirate of faith, family, and a “Good Man.”
I Can Do Bad All by Myself is packed with everything that haters hate about Perry’s movies. But—and this is a big but—it also embodies everything that’s good about Perry’s brand of cinema: Led by Henson, the cast is outstanding, as we’ve come to expect in Perry’s films. He coaxes a particularly moving performance from screen newcomer Hope Olaide Wilson, as the unprotected girl-child. Gladys Knight, Marvin Winans, and Mary J. Blige deliver rousing musical performances. And Perry even sneaks in a clever (and tastefully restrained) homage to Shug Avery’s prodigal-daughter scene in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (which Perry has said is one of his favorite films).
In other words, this movie, like the rest of Perry’s films, isn’t all bad. And Perry is not the devil—and should not be labeled and dismissed as such, which is what happens when influential black thinkers like Touré call him “perhaps the worst filmmaker in Hollywood” and “the KFC of black cinema.” Maybe it’s time to give Tyler Perry a break.
Let’s get real: There are far worse things on the cultural landscape than a Tyler Perry movie. I find the relentless violence and misogyny of some gangsta rap, for instance, much more offensive than Perry’s films. I prefer to protest the thinly veiled racism of movies like The Blind Side or boycott the alarming emergence of what I call “Mammy lit,” novels like The Help (now a movie!) in which white authors misappropriate the voices and stories of their black servants—transforming them into far more docile and less complex individuals than the real-life people on whom the characters are based.
Just to be clear, I am not a fan of Perry’s work. The Madea movies don’t appeal to me because the character is a broad stereotype, and I generally don’t like movies in which men dress up as women to caricature them. More importantly, I find that the women in Perry’s films are not happy unless they can get themselves a man to take care of, some children to raise, and a nice Christian church to attend. To me, this message is simplistic and sexist. In Perry’s universe, there are no Muslims or Buddhists, no black gay or lesbian couples, and no happy single career women. His films present a limited and limiting view of black life that I find exasperating. But it’s his money, they’re his movies, and he has a right to say whatever he wants. I simply wish he had something more—something more profound, something more interesting—to say.
I realize that what I think about Perry’s work hardly matters. The truth is, Perry doesn’t make movies for me and my intellectual/artistic/academic-type friends. He makes movies for people like my brothers, Mike and Tim, both blue-collar, working-class guys who are longtime deacons in their churches. (Here’s a six-degrees-of-separation story: Before Perry hit it big, he attended the same church as little bro Tim—not an Atlanta megachurch, but a close-knit, 100-member congregation of sincere believers in East Point.) Big brother Mike is even a great single dad—like the Idris Elba character in Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls. Oh, how I wish Mike could find himself a successful-but-lonely woman, like Gabrielle Union’s character in that film, to help him raise his little girl—but alas, such things tend to happen only in Tyler Perry movies.
Not surprisingly, Tim cites Daddy’s Little Girls as his favorite Tyler Perry movie, “because it shows a totally different side of [black] men—as loving, protecting parents.” Both my brothers—the “Good Men” Perry makes his movies for, and about—are fans of the filmmaker. But here’s the thing: Despite their lack of college degrees, fat salaries, and artistic pretensions, they’re pretty smart guys. And while they have no complaints about Perry’s work, they also enjoy more thought-provoking fare. “People feel a sense of relationship with Madea,” Tim says, but when asked to name his favorite movies, he quickly turns away from the Tyler Perry canon and cites films that are more nuanced—Freedom Writers, Ray, and Love & Basketball.
The point is, viewers like my brothers—Perry’s target audience—would follow his work even if he made different kinds of movies, films with more sophisticated messages. But until Perry (or someone else) produces such complex work about African Americans, some black filmgoers are happy to simply see themselves represented on-screen. And who can blame them? Before Perry’s emergence as a filmmaker, Hollywood had rendered that huge segment of moviegoers—striving black Christians like my brothers—invisible. Perry has given them voice, and for that, they are grateful.
As a result, Perry has built an empire unrivaled by any black filmmaker in history. Hollywood powerhouse Lionsgate distributes his work, but, shrewd businessman that he is, Perry maintains artistic control over all his projects. His franchise includes two successful television sitcoms, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns. Amazingly, he continues to tour the theatrical productions on which his movies are often based. To date, his twelve theatrical plays have grossed more than $100 million, and—not counting his most recent film, Madea’s Big Happy Family—his ten theatrical films have cumulatively grossed more than $519 million at the North American box office alone. His estimated net worth, according to Forbes, is $350 million.
Even if Perry never makes another movie—or a better one—these achievements are worth celebrating. “I am very proud of him as a businessman, as an entrepreneur, as an innovator, and also for investing in southwest Atlanta,” says Susan Ross, who serves on the boards of Atlanta’s BronzeLens and Black Women’s film festivals. “Giving jobs to people—even as extras, gofers, and interns—is a tremendous accomplishment.”
Perry employs up to 400 people at Tyler Perry Studios, a 200,000-square-foot complex in southwest Atlanta. He also has served as a virtual employment agency for several talented black actresses—Angela Bassett, Kimberly Elise, Jill Scott, Alfre Woodard—who are notoriously underutilized and underappreciated in Hollywood.
Perry’s philanthropic contributions are impressive as well: He pledged $1 million to help rebuild Haiti; he made a $1 million pledge to the NAACP in 2009; and in his adopted hometown of Atlanta (he’s originally from New Orleans), he makes regular donations to Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless shelter and the Atlanta Community Food Bank, sometimes buying trucks of food for the facilities.
Yet some of Perry’s critics still want more—perhaps too much, Ross says. “I’ve seen three or four of his films. Generally, I’ve enjoyed them for what they are. I haven’t gone to them looking for great art. But you know he’s not going to produce a film that doesn’t have some kind of positive message at the end.”
Some of the criticism of Perry’s work annoys Pearl Cleage, the Atlanta novelist and playwright, because “it doesn’t treat him as a hardworking artist” who makes certain choices to reach his target audience. “He’s trying to say something about people that’s truthful and that people wouldn’t otherwise encounter” if he didn’t couch those messages in broad comedies with mass appeal, she says.
Perry was a self-taught filmmaker whom few outside of the urban theater circuit had heard of before 2005, when his first film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, debuted at number one with a weekend box office take of $21.9 million. The movie went on to earn more than $50 million—nearly ten times its $5.5 million budget.
Since then, Cleage notes, Perry has steadily improved his craft—and the complexity of the stories he attempts to tell. “The direction is better, the screenplays are better than when he first started.” But because of his popularity, Perry has had the challenge of learning his craft publicly, with everyone—fans and critics alike—watching. He is still a relatively young artist, Cleage notes, “and I feel that he’s pushing himself to get better at trying to tell the truth that he knows and believes. That’s what artists do.”
Author Nathan McCall, however, thinks an artist of Perry’s influence needs to do more. “He’s gotten the message that there is concern among black people about the history of the images that he’s been putting out. So I think he’s at the point now where he can do a much deeper critique,” says McCall, a lecturer in the African American Studies Department at Emory University.
McCall joins other Tyler Perry critics in taking offense at characters like Madea; her abrasive, pot-smoking brother Joe (also played by Perry, donning a fat suit and old-man makeup); and the politically incorrect country bumpkin Leroy Brown, the central character in Meet the Browns—the play, the movie, and the TBS television series. These characters are broad comic stereotypes—full of “coonery” and “buffoonery,” as Spike Lee has famously said—that hearken back to the days of Amos ’n’ Andy.
Even the God-fearing, morally upright characters in Perry’s movies are stereotypes, McCall argues. “The historic image of black people is that we are simpletons,” he says. Perry’s movies do little to change that perception. “You can have a simpleton who goes to church, who is moral, who believes in family. But a simpleton is still a simpleton,” he says. “Artists have responsibilities. Spielberg has made a boatload of money, and at the same time he has managed to be very conscientious about his Jewish heritage. You’re never going to see him do something that’s demeaning to Jews. That’s the place we hope Tyler Perry comes to.”
Perry, who declined my interview requests, has said he would like to retire Madea, but his fans won’t let him. “As long as the audience loves to see it, I’ll do it,” he has said. “But the minute they stop coming—that old broad, she’s dead. She’s outta here. She is gonna die a quick death.”
Box office figures, however, indicate that Madea won’t be going anywhere soon. Virtually all of the films featuring Madea have debuted at number one and grossed more than $50 million domestically. By way of comparison, the first film Perry produced without the Madea character, 2007’s Daddy’s Little Girls, debuted at number five on the weekend charts and grossed a little over $31 million. Even The Family That Preys (2008), starring world-class talents Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates—but no Madea—never reached the number one slot and made just $36 million in U.S. theaters. Yet Perry’s subsequent film, 2009’s Madea Goes to Jail, made more than $90 million. In short, Madea pays the bills at Tyler Perry Studios.
Created as a loving tribute to Perry’s mother and an aunt who once wielded a gun to protect him from what he’s called “a living hell” of childhood abuse, Madea is, in fact, Perry’s sugar mama. Getting rid of her doesn’t make economic sense. The writer-director also sees artistic value in characters like Madea—and believes his critics are missing the point. “All these characters are bait—disarming, charming, make-you-laugh bait. I can slap Madea on something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family, any of those,” he said in a 2009 interview on 60 Minutes.
But McCall believes Perry’s beguiling characters are ultimately treacherous. “Because it doesn’t appear to be a poisonous message, it can be that much more dangerous. Buffoonery is sugarcoated; people let their defenses down,” says the novelist, memoirist, and former journalist. “Part of the complexity is that there is truth to some of what he’s saying. We all know some of his characters. But what’s problematic is that we know so many more characters who are much healthier that we don’t get to see. It’s the repetition of stereotypes that gives them power.”
Cleage believes Perry isn’t pandering to a certain audience, because he is that audience. “He is the person he’s talking to—the one who hopes that family will be enough, that faith will be enough, that you can find that special person for you. And I think that’s all you can ask of an artist: Tell me what you know; tell me what you believe.”
Cleage and McCall represent two opposing strains of the Tyler Perry debate. So who’s right? They both are. While Perry’s films may lack complexity, the ongoing arguments about his work are anything but simple. When African Americans across the country fuss about Perry’s work, they don’t speak in terms of either-or; instead, the questions inevitably lead to but-and responses.
Perry’s message of Christian faith, forgiveness, family, and finding your one true love may not appeal to McCall, Cleage, or me—but, again, Perry doesn’t make movies for people like us. Intellectuals and artists can argue all day about the images in Perry’s films and wistfully hope that he’ll continue to grow as a filmmaker and present more complicated messages in his work. But what if Perry just doesn’t have anything else to say? What if he’s content to keep making the same kinds of movies over and over again? If that’s the case, I would simply urge him to share the microphone.
At this point in his still-young career, Perry could follow the Oprah Winfrey model and use his influence—and his buckets of money—to produce and promote other filmmakers with different visions and perhaps more intellectually stimulating stories to tell. If he created a “Tyler Perry Presents . . .” series, for instance, and produced one film every year by a talented black woman director like Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), or Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), his detractors might forgive him the Madea movies. In fact, I might look forward to seeing the old girl every couple of years.
“He’s in a position to break off and make other kinds of films with other kinds of filmmakers,” agrees fellow Georgia filmmaker Jonée Ansa, who’s currently making a movie of the novel Baby of the Family (written by his wife, author Tina McElroy Ansa). “Picasso sculpted. Why can’t he sculpt or use pen and ink as opposed to oils?” Ansa asks, urging Perry to hire and work with filmmakers who can bring more technical prowess—as well as more diverse messages—to the big screen.
Perry might argue that he’s doing just that. In 2008 he launched a second production company, 34th Street Films, to produce work by other directors. His critically panned attempt at adapting a literary classic, For Colored Girls, was the first feature produced by 34th Street Films. Its next project is a soon-to-be-released comedy called We the Peeples, starring Craig Robinson and Kerry Washington. For this film, Perry is shunning the director’s chair; instead, it will mark the directorial debut of screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism, who wrote the Atlanta-centered films ATL and Drumline.
Perry is also stretching himself as an actor. He is taking over the role of Alex Cross—previously played by Morgan Freeman—in I, Alex Cross, the latest installment of detective-psychologist movies based on the popular James Patterson book series. And Perry plays the lead role in Good Deeds, a drama that he recently filmed in Atlanta—sans Madea.
Meanwhile, the Tyler Perry debate shows no signs of letting up. “The hope is that as an artist he would be able to identify his weaknesses—maybe let someone else do the writing,” suggests McCall. “We all have artistic limitations. Those who continue to excel are those who can identify their weaknesses and bring in other people who can help them compensate.”
McCall also suggests a challenge to measure Perry’s ongoing growth as a filmmaker: “Watch one of his movies and cut off the sound and see how you feel about the people you see. Are they people we would laugh with or people we would laugh at?”
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez
Valerie Boyd is the author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston and the forthcoming Spirits in the Dark: The Untold Story of Black Women in Hollywood. She teaches journalism at the University of Georgia.