Shikagoland on Tyler Perry, Minority Representation in TV/Film, and Why Its Hard Out Here For a Pimp

I’d like to see Jennifer Aniston even try to ball so hard

Last night I was listening to an episode of my FAVORITE podcast The Black Guy Who Tips (seriously, check it out. Rod and Karen are HILARIOUS) where a discussion about the show Girls eventually developed into discussion about minority representation in tv/films in general which then, as it often does when the participants of these discussions are African-American, turned into a debate about Tyler Perry.

Of course.

It was all a fairly standard conversation until one of the panelists said something along the lines of “hating Tyler Perry is self hate”.

PAUSE

I actually took my headphones out and rolled over in horror. This is a diatribe I’ve heard a dozen times before and it never gets any less ridiculous. I understand what the panelist was trying to convey: sure there are people who have Madea type family members, revolve their lives around the church, wear lacefront cornrows, and live in the South. I understand that in decrying the images Perry’s films depict, some may feel that people are denying the truth of their own people. Self hate as it were.

To which I say…NAWL.

I remember years ago when my mother stumbled upon a DVD  set of Tyler Perry’s plays in Best Buy. I can’t remember if the first Madea movie had come out yet, but I was already familiar with Perry because of his plays which always ended up in Chicago. As we were at the beginning of a holiday weekend, please believe that one of those DVDs was playing on the living room tv at all times. My opinion on the plays were that they were badly written, Madea was over the top and embarrassing but funny, and that the whole thing would flow along a lot better if they didn’t break several times for 10 minute tearful gospel songs. But, to each his own, right?

Fast forward a few years and because I have cable and a lot of free time I have seen a few Tyler Perry films. My mother is a fan and she basically forced me to take her to see Madea Goes to Jail. The more exposure you have to Perry’s work the easier it is to notice a pattern, whether Madea is involved or not. In case you aren’t then I’m here to help!

The Shikagoland Guide to Tyler Perry Films

1. If Madea is a character in the movie it will start with her doing something outlandish. Shooting something. A high speed chase. Beating someone up. Whatever the crime she will end up in front of Judge Mablean.

2. There will be a damsel in distress. She will eventually be saved by the down to earth god loving blue collar lightskinned brotha of her dreams.

3. The villain will be ambitious, educated, and wealthy. If its a woman, she will get hers by losing everything due to whatever trickery she used to get to the top in the first place (in The Family that Preys, Sanaa Lathan’s character basically fucks her way to the top despite being clearly bright and motivated and holding a college degree). If its a man, he will get his by losing everything due to whatever trickery he used to get to the top in the first place (in Diary of A Mad Black Woman, the male villain displaces his devoted wife for a woman he’s been cheating on her with for years. He eventually gets shot due to dealings with the drug dealers/criminals he built his career defending). The message seems to be, put your faith in God. Higher education will turn you into a lying philandering jerk.

4. The cast will be made of up tons of recognizable black actors/actresses. Which, I can’t be snarky about that. SOMEONE has to hire them.

And therein lies the problem. I want to be all gung-ho over Tyler Perry. Problems with black male comedians often resorting to dressing up in drag and lampooning black women aside (and it takes a snow plow to push those issues aside), Madea is a hilarious character. I find myself cracking up at her antics whether I want to or not. I don’t have a “Madea” type in my family (I’m pretty secure in my belief that my late grandmother would cast an epic side eye upon her in real life), so I don’t relate in that way, but I find entertainment in it. And while I don’t really subscribe to the religious bent found in his films, I’m not gonna persecute him for that. My problem with Tyler Perry is simple:

His movies are badly written repetitive crap through which he beats the viewer over the head with his personal views on morality, family structures, capitalism, education, sexuality and the agency of women.

I tire ever so much of his AMBITIOUS WOMEN ARE EVIL trope.  I grasp my head in pain at the constant drum beat of GOD WILL PROVIDE. ESPECIALLY when juxtaposed with the villainy of those who have clearly saw fit to do for themselves. I roll my eyes when every God fearing Christian man who comes to the aid of the damsel in distress also happens to have six pack abs, never mentions or suggests sex, and lands on the Prince side of the color wheel (let us note that in both Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea’s Family Reunion both of the “bad guys” were darker men).

But even those aren’t my biggest issues with Perry. Nope, his biggest affront in my eyes? The Family That Preys. And its not for the reasons you might think. TFTP is a slightly different Perry vehicle. While there is the normal roster of black talent (Taraji P. Henson, Robin Givens, Sanaa Lathan), and the same color-by-numbers main plot, in my eyes TFTP had potential that was clearly wasted. The secondary plot in the film is essentially a buddy comedy between Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates’ characters. Frankly, I found it plausible that Bates’ character had forged a close (closer in her eyes than Alfre’s character but…you know) friendship with this woman who had previously worked for her family. I found the storyline revolving around the wacky roadtrip these two ladies venture off on to be absolutely charming and worthy of a film of its own. These two seasoned and accomplished actresses act the hell out of these parts and their relationship would have been the heart of a much better film.

BUT NO. Perry had to interject his wash-rinse-repeat morality play, with the added dose of “sista abandoning her hardworking black husband for the rich white man” to make up for the smaller influence of religion on the plot. By the time the former stockbroker turned homeless guy cleans up and shows up for the final boardroom scene I was ready to chuck my remote at the tv and scream. At the point Madea bursting into the room with a HELLER! for no reason whatsover would have been a relief.

My other issue with Perry has almost nothing to do with him at all. Its a problem with “Hollywood” at large. The problem being that Perry is basically the only game in town right now. We can pile on him all we want, but we probably wouldn’t be as disturbed by his works if there was anything else out there presenting other views of black life in this country. Tyler Perry has built an empire (live theater, film, and tv) of showing a VERY specific slice of life. Meanwhile I can think of several shows that show the different types of lives that white people can have in this country. Even if we restrict it to comedy there is Girls (urban white hispter experience), The Middle (lower class suburban experience), Suburgatory (middle class suburban experience), Modern Family (upper middle class experience sprinkled with issues of May-December marriage, adoption, and gay couples), Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 (the post Dawson’s Creek James Van Der Beek experience…oh and the Manhattan lives of two upper class white women), Twee The New Girl, Hot in Cleveland, Veep, and so on. All current shows. All have little to nothing in common except their genre and the racial makeup of their casts.

As a child growing up in the dark ages, I had more opportunities to see myself represented onscreen. Sure, I wasn’t rich or from Philly like The Fresh Prince, and my parents weren’t a doctor/lawyer tag team like on The Cosby Show and so on, but Will was just like my goofy cousin, Denise was the cool girl I wanted to be, Urkel was the kid I was glad I never met. That opportunity to have something relatable is actually what Tyler Perry tries to present to his chosen audience…but also limits the work of other artists by the Hollywood machine who take a look at his success and hit the DUPLICATE button. For whatever reason instead of looking at Perry’s work and saying “well. These black people could probably make us some money! lets invest in a few more!” they look at it and say “Ok. Cool. Thats what they want. They’ve got it. We don’t need to do anything else”.

WRONG.

Being the kind of person who falls squarely on the consumer side of the creator/consumer coin, I can only vote with my dollar/page views/etc. So. I’ll probably be over here re-watching my DVD copy of Boomerang* until Hollywood wises up.

And finally:

Shikagoland’s List of Black Movies Movies with Black People in Them That You Probably Haven’t Seen That You Can Watch After You Get Home from Madea’s Witness Protection

  1. Boomerang : I don’t even have the words. Boomerang does things to me. Eddie Murphy at his best. Stellar back up cast. No extreme plots. Just a romantic comedy showin’ black people doin’ black thangs like…going to work, falling in love, wearing nice clothes, having the sex, being involved in their communities, etc. Boomerang is so important to me because everyone in the movie is black. Not some hyper fictionalized version of BLACKNESS™, but just black people being whatever their blackness is to them. Whether its a set of parents showing up to cook chitlins, or noting discrimination in a clothing store. Its not a Black History Month esque representation of blackness. Its just us living our lives which have surely been shaped by our culture/upbringing…ya know. Like regular people.
  2. Coming to America: If you haven’t seen this we can’t be friends. Period. Just go rent the damn thing.
  3. Eve’s Bayou: Everything about this movie is magic. Great plot, with the touch of the mystic, wrapped in some early 60s era Louisiana splendor in sets and costuming. Also, Sam Jackson.
  4. Hustle and Flow: I know a lot of people don’t love this movie. I know even more pissed about “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” winning the Academy Award for Best Song (I have given long and impassioned speeches about exactly why I think it ABSOLUTELY deserved to win). I know most of us wish the ground would open up and swallow Terrence “Baby Wipes” Howard aren’t fans of Terrance Howard. But really. Give it a shot. I’m a girl who can’t sit through movies like New Jack City (I kinda can’t deal with the kind of violence that actually exists being on my screen) but I ride for this film.
  5. This Christmas: Chris Brown just had to go and ruin this for me The kind of antic filled family holiday film that have been cash cows for studios for decades. It gives me the warm fuzzies.

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