Writer/director/actor Tyler Perry is arguably the most polarizing black man in American film today. Having emerged in the mid-2000s after years of building his brand on the gospel play circuit throughout the south and midwest, Perry made his feature film debut with the critically-panned Diary of A Mad Black Woman back in 2005. He hasn’t looked back since. His films have made him one of the richest men in Hollywood, having earned $130 million in 2010 and 2011.
With all of that being said, I have to acknowledge one thing about Tyler Perry: I think he’s a really bad filmmaker. I think his movies are overly devoted to a clunky combination of ham-fisted moralism and cheesy melodrama. I think his “traditional values” would be better suited for those straight-to-DVD films they sell at church conventions and I think most of his films are shot like 1980s sitcoms.
But I don’t hate Tyler Perry.
I was speaking with an actress about Tyler Perry’s films recently and she confided that she feels like Perry’s work is equivalent to minstrelsy. The images that he puts on-screen “are not us” and “make us look bad.” This is a common criticism of Perry—but it’s rooted in a certain pathology that I find more deplorable than 100 “Madeas” could ever be.
The truth that many of the “conscious” black elite either choose to ignore or are too self-righteous to acknowledge is that Tyler Perry’s films are a representation of us. His films resonate deeply with his audience; the people that became devoted to his work long before he ever landed film deals or launched a multi-million dollar media empire. Just because his work isn’t representative of your particular black experience, doesn’t mean it isn’t representative of anyone’s. That audience deserves to see what they want to see, just as much as you or anyone else does. There is not one, monolithic “black voice.” We are a multitude of voices and all of the voices deserve to be heard. We can’t get to that place where the multitude is heard if we’re determined to snuff out any voice that doesn’t fit our specific perspective.
Also, minstrelsy was predicated on black people being lampooned as a race for the enjoyment of white audiences. By and large, Tyler Perry’s audiences are black. His films are for black people. He’s not a crossover star in the vein of an Eddie Murphy or a Will Smith. White people know who Tyler Perry is because he’s rich and he’s garnered a significant amount of industry clout. And he’s attained that clout without having to reach out to the white demographic. If white people show up, that’s fine—but make no mistake, Tyler Perry makes films for black folks.
Indictment of an artist is also an indictment of that artist’s audience. Perry’s work speaks to a certain audience. That audience has as much right to their favorite director as anyone else does.