Essays on the seemingly unstoppable writer, producer, director, actor, and entrepreneur Tyler Perry
Contributions by Leah Aldridge, Karen M. Bowdre, Aymar Jean Christian, Keith Corson, Rachel Jessica Daniel, Artel Great, Brandeise Monk-Payton, Miriam Petty, Paul N. Reinsch, Rashida Z. Shaw, Samantha N. Sheppard, Ben Raphael Sher, and Khadijah Costley White
For over a decade Tyler Perry has been a lightning rod for both criticism and praise. To some he is most widely known for his drag performances as Madea, a self-proclaimed "mad black woman," not afraid to brandish a gun or a scalding pot of grits. But to others who watch the film industry, he is the businessman who by age thirty-six had sold more than $100 million in tickets, $30 million in videos, $20 million in merchandise, and was producing 300 projects each year viewed by 35,000 every week.
Is the commercially successful African American actor, director, screenwriter, playwright, and producer "malt liquor for the masses," an "embarrassment to the race!," or is he a genius who has directed the most culturally significant American melodramas since Douglas Sirk? Are his films and television shows even melodramas, or are they conservative Christian diatribes, cheeky camp, or social satires? Do Perry's flattened narratives and character tropes irresponsibly collapse important social discourses into one-dimensional tales that affirm the notion of a "post-racial" society?
In light of these debates, From Madea to Media Mogul makes the argument that Tyler Perry must be understood as a figure at the nexus of converging factors, cultural events, and historical traditions. Contrbutors demonstrate how a critical engagement with Perry's work and media practices highlights a need for studies to grapple with developing theories and methods on disreputable media. These essays challenge value-judgment criticisms and offer new insights on the industrial and formal qualities of Perry's work.
TreaAndrea M. Russworm, Amherst, Massachusetts, is an assistant professor of English at UMass Amherst. Her work has been published in Cinema Journal's Teaching Media and the books Watching While Black and Game On, Hollywood! Samantha N. Sheppard, Ithaca, New York, is an assistant professor of cinema and media studies at Cornell University. Her work has appeared in Cinema Journal and the edited collection The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema. Karen M. Bowdre, Radnor, Pennsylvania, is an independent scholar who has published in Black Camera; Cinema Journal; and Falling in Love Again: The Contemporary Romantic Comedy.240 pages (approx.), 6 x 9 inches, foreword, introduction, index
(Before I begin I need to make two things clear. One, I am not being sarcastic or ironic or willingly contradictory or anything like that. I enjoy Tyler Perry films in a fashion Tyler Perry would likely disapprove of, but that doesn't mean I'm kidding when I say I enjoy Tyler Perry movies. I really, really do.
And two, I am an intelligent person following the procedure for intelligent discourse. You likely won't come away from this agreeing with me, but you should at least understand my reasoning. Assuming I'm stupid and dismissing me as such simply because I like Tyler Perry is a total Britta move, and Britta is the worst.)
About two months ago, I began writing a book about Tyler Perry, something I've been wanting to do for a long time. As you can probably imagine, the overwhelming question posed by friends on Twitter and Facebook has consistently been: "Why?" That in itself is really all the reason I need, not just because I'm fond of horrible ideas from a marketing perspective (have you ever tried explaining Sam Strange to someone?) but because it demonstrates how little people actually know about this very complicated and strange filmmaker.
Notice I did not call him good. He is not good. He is in fact quite bad. But he is also bad in a way I've never seen before. And he's an auteur, a term that has nothing to do with quality. Bad auteurs are rare and beautiful creatures totally worth our attention. It's easy to fall in love with cinema by watching only great films. But to truly see its possibilities requires a look or two at its limitations. Mediocrity doesn't offer much in this regard, but visionaries of uncompromising, unadulterated ignorance can teach us a lot. Rather than bemoan Tyler Perry for how awful his movies are, we should celebrate the amazing opportunity he provides. There is NO ONE in the world making movies with as much authoritative power and disregard for critical opinion as Tyler Perry, and he gives us roughly two films a year. Add to that his completely alien interpretation of human behavior combined with his status as a cultural spokesperson/cult ringleader/self-help guru, and you have an unprecedented recipe for misguided and strange cinema, made all the more bizarre by how powerful he continues to grow.
I assume most visitors to BAD have at least some taste for abnormal films. Maybe you like Lynch or Jodorowski or the tamer weirdness of Gilliam or Refn. But you have to understand that artistic symbolism and abstraction are not truly strange in the same way Tyler Perry is strange. Art films, for lack of a better term, typically come in easily identified doses so people know whether to flock to or avoid them. Tyler Perry's weirdness is hidden in plain sight enough that he repels the people who admire abstraction, while attracting those normally hate such things. On both sides, people see his films yet do not really SEE what's actually happening.
I know because when I watched my first Tyler Perry film (Diary of a Mad Black Woman -- for a Sam Strange article) it took me some time to realize just how bizarre it was. I knew something was wrong and I made my Sam Strange jokes about it, but it didn't hit me until later just how wrong it was and what that meant in the face of his success. This is a movie that runs through its three-act structure only to stop suddenly and introduce a superfluous fourth act in which a woman tortures a paraplegic with surprising ferocity. Even worse, the film acknowledges the act as just one of those things people do.
Not every Tyler Perry film features such blatant craziness (some are even crazier though), but on one level or another they all display high measures of dangerous irresponsibility and casually dismiss as normal what most of us would call insane. I find perverse enjoyment in this. I have a fondness for things that should not exist, and Tyler Perry as a highly successful movie mogul really should not exist. What I don't understand is why I'm so alone on this one. To me, Tyler Perry films should be shown at repertory movie houses filled with drunken people laughing their asses off by now.
As movie fans we can disagree on a wide variety of things, but the negative consensus on Tyler Perry is quite clear. It's so widespread and axiomatic in fact, that it can only be a product of group-think ignorance. I don't even have to guess on this one. Many people I interact with regarding Tyler Perry eventually admit they've never seen any of his films. Here's something I find axiomatic: If you don't check something out firsthand, you're not in a position to opine its merits.
That goes double for Tyler Perry, whose work seems to have inspired a damning series of half truths which have turned into faulty generalizations which have turned into facts. Such as...
1. Tyler Perry makes religious movies -- Let's define a cultural line and draw it between Kirk Cameron's Fireproof (yes, I've seen it) and Forrest Gump (I've seen this one too). Fireproof is a Christian film, while Forrest Gump is a secular film with a Christian character. Tyler Perry lay somewhere in between, more on the Forrest Gump side than you think.
I'll admit his first two films lay on the Fireproof side, however. Both feature Christian main characters who eschew reality in favor of specifically Christian didacticism (in other words, fall in love but wait for marriage to have sex). After that, however, Tyler Perry films no longer have this hang-up. Characters may say they're Christian but that's about all they do. You might even see them in church, but we saw Forrest Gump in church as well. Religion plays a role in many movies because it's a part of our culture whether you're into it or not. That doesn't make them Christian movies. Starting with Daddy's Little Girls, in which we see the main romance consummated on the second date (after an aborted date-rape on the first date), Tyler Perry's no longer interested in preaching, and his films no longer feel like your reading Chick Tracts (although, I have a special place in my heart for Chick Tracts, too).
Keep in mind that Tyler Perry's stupidest character, Mr. Brown, is also his most devout Christian. His flagship character, Madea, dismisses religion completely. So there's that.
2. Tyler Perry only makes films about black people -- First of all, so what? Second of all, no he doesn't.
Yes, Tyler Perry films have largely black casts, and it's a good thing too because some of his actors are really great, and this is sadly one of the only avenues giving them opportunities. If you want to see something really sad, watch great actresses like Alfre Woodard or Angela Bassett bring their A-game to Tyler Perry's C-scripts simply because no one else is hiring. Hate Tyler Perry all you want, but it's undeniable that he gives a lot of people work that didn't exist before, and his popularity would not have been possible if Hollywood didn't spend all its energy courting sixteen year old white boys and ignoring everyone else.
But beyond that, Tyler Perry films are almost never about being black, which I think is the issue turning white movie fans away. In most cases, the characters are simply people rather than "black people." Even in a highfalutin film like For Colored Girls, he fails to tell us actually what it means to be an African American woman as opposed to any other kind of woman. He often combines "black" and "woman" together to signify a type of feminine strength specific to African Americans, but that difference never manifests in any definable way. As for the men, they're more beautiful and muscular than white guys, but that's about it.
So they're not really "black people" films so much as Chick Flicks, made perversely entertaining due to Tyler Perry's shallow, antiquated and highly offensive views on women. If you want to see a film where a giant male protagonist chokes a tiny lady for the sake of comedy, Tyler Perry's got you covered. If you want an examination of what it means to be African American in society today, look somewhere else. I recommend Crash or perhaps The Blind Side.
3. Tyler Perry = Madea (also: Madea sucks) -- First, some numbers. To date, Tyler Perry has released twelve films, only six of which feature Madea. Meet the Browns and I Can Do Bad All by Myself, however, only have about ten minutes of Madea each, so they can hardly be called Madea films. Actually, none of the films so far can really be called Madea films as she plays a supporting role at best in each, excluding the most recent Madea's Big Happy Family, which puts her front and center likely to offset the artistic failure of For Colored Girls. My point is, Madea is not nearly as omnipresent in Tyler Perry's canon as people assume. Equating him with her is erroneous. In fact, he's not been shy about telling interviewers how much he longs to kill her off.
That's actually a huge drag because Madea is fucking awesome. If I had you this far, I risk losing you now most of all, but I made a decision long ago to never lie about what I think is funny, and I find Madea extremely funny.
Tyler Perry's a so-so actor and a horrible dramatist, but he excels at comedy. As Madea, he doesn't make intelligent jokes so much as just riff with a very consistent level of low to medium-level humor. One vital part of the equation few people know about is Joe, Madea's brother and frequent comedy partner. Joe's also played by Tyler Perry, and he has a penchant for predictable things like fart humor and Viagra jokes but dips into a lot of strange incestuous jokes as well. When the two work together Tyler Perry captures a kind of magic. I'll put it this way, and this is by far the most blasphemous thing I'll say in this article, but when a movie switches to Madea and Joe, you know you're in for something special the same way you just know you're in good hands whenever a Marx Brothers movie gives you any two brothers in the same scene.
There's a purposeful absurdity to Madea that most people don't pick up on because absurdity comes off badly when it's not on your side, and I don't mean that in some flip, backhanded way. It's just incredibly easy to hate Madea if you've already decided to hate Madea because her character is illogical and stupid, and Tyler Perry forces her into plots that are both self-important and hyper-dramatic. The key to Tyler Perry is learning to laugh at the drama so you can laugh with Madea.
From this perspective, it's understand why Tyler Perry hates Madea so much. She often undercuts the severity of his messages, and he's yet to find a way around it. He wants to move on to bigger and better things, but he's tied to her despite all his success. Madea doesn't go to church, she doesn't put up with any drama, and she refuses submission, so when he puts her in contrast with his typically weak female protagonists, it tends to emphasize how ridiculously stupid they are. In other words, if you hate Tyler Perry, Madea is oddly your best pal in the world.
You can see this in non-Madea movies, where all bets are off and whiplash tonal shifts are not divided by scene. For those seeking the craziest Tyler Perry possible, this is where you find the good stuff, particularly in the Why Did I Get Married? movies. On the other hand, when Tyler Perry forgoes Madea and actually makes a decent enough movie to call mediocre, like Daddy's Little Girls or The Family that Preys, no one wins. These movies probably have Tyler Perry's best scripts, but once my book is finished I doubt I'll even touch them with a ten-foot clown pole.
So to sum up: Tyler Perry is not synonymous with Madea. But I kind of wish he were.
4. Tyler Perry is a shitty director -- Actually Tyler Perry is a pretty decent director. Given his reputation, you'd expect his films to exhibit a sub-Kevin Smith level of filmmaking proficiency, but that's not the case at all. His first directorial effort, Madea's Family Reunion, suffers from a weird soap opera glow and Meet the Browns has some really awful editing choices, but the rest of his films look relatively normal. He even participates in really long shots requiring a great amount of blocking and camera movements. All I'm saying is that he's become a fine journeyman director. He could totally direct the next Fockers movie and no one would know it was him.
He's actually really good at casting, too. The number one thing Tyler Perry succeeds at is inspiring hate toward his villains, and half of that is picking the right actor. Even when dealing with real Hollywood stars, he tends to use them accurately. Daddy's Little Girls, for instance, wouldn't work at all if not for Idris Elba. I'm not sure anyone else could have played that part with the same dignity while also getting across exactly what that character is supposed to communicate. Put it this way: he's one of the very few directors smart enough to hire Michael Jai White solely for his comedy skill.
So let's say I've convinced you to give Tyler Perry shot. Where do you begin? He's made twelve films with varying degrees of craziness, and no one should be asked to watch them all. With that in mind, I've prepared a handy primer to help you cut straight to the good stuff.
Tyler Perry Level: HIGH
Diary of a Mad Black Woman
It's best to start at the beginning of Tyler Perry's reign over Hollywood, not simply because it's the first film but because it serves as a distillation of everything he stands for. Later films take this film's template and dilute it with variety. Here it's all concentrated in one tidy package. You get the insane melodrama, decent doses of Madea and Joe, and a nice bit of Tyler Perry craziness towards the end. Its more epic scope inflates the running time, but also kind of negates other Madea films. So it's useful if you're trying to get the most Tyler Perry for your buck.
Why Did I Get Married One & Too
This is what it's all about. The bad news is you kind of have to watch them both. There's a lot of good stuff in part one, but it's sort of like Batman Begins to WDIGM2's The Dark Knight as far as crazy shit goes. If you know nothing about the plot, keep it that way. Even in a Tyler Perry vacuum, it's difficult to predict what his films will do next. The less you know about these two, the better.
For Colored Girls
I haven't written my For Colored Girls chapter yet, so I don't know it as intimately as other Tyler Perry films. But I have seen it four times and can vouch both for its earnest grab at importance and utter failure to hit the mark, making it one of Tyler Perry's more laughably crazy films. Having said that, the first five or ten minutes are really good. The first time I saw it, I was terrified that Tyler Perry had finally made a real movie. Then a guy drops two kids out his window and we're back in Tyler Perry-ville. If you thought Thandie Newton's W. performance was strange, she really hits bottom here. Unless she's playing a mythical witch. In that case, it's her best performance ever.
Any of the Madea Plays
I personally recommend Madea's Class Reunion, but it doesn't really matter which one you choose. Everything that makes Tyler Perry weird and special is amplified tenfold in his Madea plays. It's kind of like falling in love with Metallica through "Enter Sandman" then going back and discovering "Master of Puppets." They're really long, but it's not so bad if you fast forward through the songs.
Tyler Perry Level: MEDIUM
Madea's Family Reunion
This is Tyler Perry's first actual directorial effort. It retains early steep Christian elements and even throws in a little cultural relevancy via Maya Angelou. It's also the first Tyler Perry film to use child rape as a plot device.
Madea's Big Happy Family
Probably the funniest, lightest Tyler Perry film, though his upcoming Madea's Witness Protection looks like it may take that title. From now on, when showing someone what Madea's all about, this is probably the film I'll use. It's fucking awesome.
Meet the Browns
Whenever Meet the Browns features Leroy or Cora Brown, it's on fire and I love it. For those who don't know, Mr. Brown is another absurd Tyler Perry character, but this one's played by David Mann, a portly clown with a high-pitched Southern accent. There's a couple deeper comedy notes with Mr. Brown that Madea never achieves, but Tyler Perry seems completely unaware of them and only fulfills the character's full potential accidentally. Unfortunately, he's in less than half the film and it kind of flounders without his presence. Amazingly enough, the TV show focused on Brown is garbage and even I can't stand it.
Madea Goes to Jail
This is Tyler Perry's Jason Goes to Manhattan, in that the film almost completely fails to live up to the title's specific promise. Madea does go to jail, but it doesn't last long and amounts to way less comedy than you'd expect. She's not even the film's focus. Instead, that privilege goes to a grown up Rudy Huxtable, who has the rare honor of being the most raped character in movie history. I like it okay, but you're better off watching Madea's Big Happy Family if you're looking for a full-on Madea movie.
Tyler Perry Level: LOW
The Family that Preys
This is easily Tyler Perry's best, most ambitious film, but you won't find much fun craziness here. Alfre Woodard gives the most subtle performance in any Tyler Perry movie so far and her character is the first to actually get across his idea of strength through grace. It's still unmistakeably a Tyler Perry film, though, and die-hards like me will find plenty of interesting stuff, not the least of which is the long-awaited incorporation of white characters. Nevertheless, this is not the place to test the Tyler Perry waters.
Daddy's Little Girls
I kind of love Daddy's Little Girls, but it's not a good starting point either. Aided by Idris Elba and a script modest enough to actually achieve its goals, Tyler Perry rises to the level of mediocrity with this one. Its main point of interest lies solely in contrast to his other films. For that reason, it has a lot in common with The Family that Preys.
I Can Do Bad All by Myself
Here's another one that manages to do a lot of things right but lacks excitement as a result. I will say, however, that its focus on music and one completely meaningless Madea tangent make it resemble the plays a bit more than other Tyler Perry films, indicating that he really doesn't give a fuck what a normal movie is supposed to look like. It's also the only Tyler Perry film to retain a specific narrative theme throughout its whole running time.
I've only seen Good Deeds once at this point. There's probably a whole universe of strange things to discover, but it lacks any stand-out crazy scenes. Tyler Perry's performance is pretty goddamn odd, though. He alternates between regular Tyler Perry, Madea, and Peter Sellers' Chance the Butler depending on which character each scene needs. You also get to see him ride a motorcycle, which I find hilarious.
Tyler Perry's future is now more uncertain than ever. His next film features Eugene Levy, the one after that has a Kardashian, and soon he will star in an action film that he did not write or direct (I cannot tell you how excited I am to see this). He stands poised to finally break through his own glass ceiling. But I had these worries before For Colored Girls and Madea Goes to Jail as well. Somehow, he always manages to shoot himself in the foot. Just sit back and ponder, though, how strange it is that Hollywood's highest paid filmmaker endlessly searches for a way to finally "sell out." Maybe this time he'll finally do it.
Meaning, this is as good a time as any to get on board my "Let's Turn Tyler Perry into an Unwilling Cult Icon" bandwagon. So far it's just me, but we will grow. Fair Warning: If you join after his inevitable sex scandal, you're too late to be one of the cool kids.
Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? [Blu-ray]
DVD | Lions Gate$8.50 on Amazon
Evan Saathoff Senior Editor
Evan has been smartassing-up the Internet since 2008. His passions include dumb action movies, not-dumb action movies, Shakespeare, and Tyler Perry. While he claims to understand that people don't always get what they want, he nevertheless believes it would be “cool” if he could become more like Danny DeVito with age.