Although he is only 42 years old, and made his debut as a film director, producer, screenplay writer, actor, playwright and songwriter in 2005, Tyler Perry’s output has been so prolific — some would call it Herculean — that in several respects he seems like a veteran in the world of filmmaking and play and TV producing.
Clearly Perry, born Emmitt Perry Jr. in New Orleans, found his audience early on. It was an underserved audience, overwhelmingly Black, although he has White followers too, that had been longing for movies and plays that “keep it real” (as they perceived it).
And just as the O’Jays sang of having “a message in the music,” Perry has always made a point of having “a messages in the movie,” the stage production and the television program.
Without question, a good part of Tyler Perry’s work does not win the approval of many Black people, particularly the middle class and above. The word “ghetto” sometimes comes up.
Spike Lee, one of the few other giants in Black filmmaking, and another maverick, has been particularly critical of Tyler Perry. While acknowledging that Perry “has a large audience” and is “very smart in what he’s done,” Lee also famously noted that “some of the imagery is troubling” and “we can do better.” He even went so far as to use the words “buffoonery” and “coonery.”
Those last two words seem appropriate for the loud-talking, English-abusing, gaudy-clothes-wearing character Leroy Brown (portrayed by David Mann) on the TV show “Meet the Browns” (he was in the movie too). However, that is not to deny that he is very often funny.
LEE HAS A right to his opinion (could there be a little jealousy in there?) and in some respects he hits the mark and indeed, as he put it, “a lot of this is on us.” He pointed out that many high quality Black movies have received very little support in the Black community.
Perry was, to say the least, not pleased. He said, “It is so insulting. It’s attitudes like that, that make Hollywood think that these people (Perry’s audience) do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them.” He added, “ I can slap Madea on something and talk then about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family, any of those.”
Justifiable (or not justifiable) criticism notwithstanding, few could deny the worth — in terms of entertainment and social value — of movies like “Madea’s Family Union” (with Blair Underwood, Maya Angelou, Lynn Whitfield, Cicely Tyson and Boris Kodjoe), “Meet the Browns” (starring Angela Bassett and Rick Fox), “Why Did I Get Married?” and “Why Did I Get Married Too” (featuring Janet Jackson, Louis Gossett Jr. and Jill Scott), “The Family That Preys” (with Alfre Woodward and Kathy Bates), and “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” (starring Taraji P. Henson).
Tyler has no trouble in securing the talents of major stars.
And it should be kept in mind that Tyler Perry provides work for an exceptionally large number of lesser known Black actors and actresses, as well as people working behind the camera, both of whom spend a lot of time out of work, more so that Whites, even though their unemployment is high as well. It’s the nature of the business.
IF THERE IS a female edge to much, if not most, of Perry’s work, it could have something to do with having had an abusive father. He said bluntly that his father’s “only answer to everything was to beat it out of you.”
His mother took him to church a lot which served as a kind of refuge. That is why there are so many church settings in his films, and why there are religious undertones even in the most unlikely places.
Young Tyler was so detached from and fearful of his father that when he was only 16 years of age, he had his first name changed from Emmitt to Tyler. This was one way to distance himself that much more from the man who had made his life so difficult.
Oprah Winfrey has said numerous times that as a girl, seeing the Supremes on the Ed Sullivan show made her realize that she too could “be something.” It was on her show that a guest author got his attention, explaining that writing could be therapeutic, indeed, a way to help work out personal problems.
TYLER PERRY decided then and there to launch a career in writing. Initially he wrote letters to himelf, and those letters evolved into the development of a stage musical titled “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” which made its debut in a community theater in Atlanta, the city he had decided to make home two years prior.
The play was not a success, leaving Tyler disappointed but undaunted. Fueled by a need to express himself, please a largely ignored audience, and become the success he envisioned, he forged on, finding major success in a surprisingly short period of time.
His first movie was “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” in 2005. Certain crude elements notwithstanding, it grossed an impressive $50.6 million at the box office. His second film the following year, “Madea’s Family Reunion,” did even better, grossing $65 million.
After that, there was a long stretch of of sucessful movies, stage productions and television programs, and it shows no signs of subsiding.
DESPITE THE support he receives regularly from Oprah Winfrey and many other notables, there is still critcism, some of it exceptionally harsh. Touré, a New York based cultural critic, novelist and TV show host, once described Tyler Perry as “perhaps the worst filmmaker in Hollywood” and “the KFC of Black cinema.”
The fact is, Tyler Perry has a niche in Hollyywood and beyond, and he functions within it exceptionally well. Morever, he is a very wealthy man. He also gives back to the community, including a million dollar gift to the NAACP in 2009, and sending 65 kids from Philadelphia to Disney World.
Someone once said, “You can’t argue with success.” Well, you can, but it is essentially to of no avail if huge numbers of people are making that success possible.
It seems right to give Tyler Perry the last word:
“I work really hard. I know my audience and they’re not people the studios know anything about.”
Who could take issue with that?