Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From Colored Boys Who Have Considered Tyler Perry

(This is an E-mail dialog between Odienator and Steven Boone of Big Media Vandalism.)


It's been too long since we last had a Big Media Vandalism tete-a-tete, and I've got just the troublemaking topic for us: Emmitt Perry, Jr. Our reading audience will know him by his stage first name, Tyler.

Dissed by Black directors for engaging in "coonery," and dismissed by the same critics who'd lick the asses of even worse directors channeling in mumblecore, Tyler Perry has nonetheless managed to succeed. Like Roger Corman, he has his own studio AND all his movies have made money. In the past 10 years, I've read numerous books on Zanuck, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner and other Hollywood moguls. After reading their exploits, I had to conclude that, in his own ghetto fabulous way, Tyler Perry has brought the old studio system back to Hollywood.

Perry produces TV shows and adaptations of his stage work, hires numerous actors, writers and technicians of color, and has his own studio in Atlanta. That studio is on a lot more land than the 40 acres promised to my ancestors enslaved in Georgia when they were freed. Anyone who dares question my old school Hollywood studio comparison should take note: Perry's studio got a 100 episode, $200 million TV show contract from Colorizin' Ted Turner's TBS, the biggest TV contract given anyone, White, Black or polka-dotted. If Lew Wasserman were alive, he'd fist bump the man who would be Madea. For his producing prowess alone, Perry should be nicknamed Dave Negro Selznick.

Lest we forget Madea, Perry's alter-ego on both stage and film. A 6-foot-5 Black man dressed as a woman supports Dave Chapelle's argument that Hollywood has been de-sexing Black men the past 15 years by having them dress as asexual fat women. But Perry knows which side his bread is buttered on; Madea is his studio's Bette Davis, or perhaps its Rin Tin Tin. Laugh if you wanna, but remember: Rin Tin Tin saved the studio Bette Davis used to work for in her heyday. It's no secret that I can't stand Madea, but more on that later.

As biz-savvy as Perry is, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that he's got writing and directing skillset deficiencies, at least as they pertain to cinema and TV. For some, these issues came to a head in 2010 when he tackled Ntozake Shange's classic play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. I had mixed feelings about that film, and have mixed feelings on Perry overall. I know you also have sort of a conflicted take on Perry, so let's explore all that. Let's talk about his bootleg, ass-out ghetto fabulous plays at the Beacon Theater, his critics, and his cinematic output. I am sick of the easy dismissals, and I confess I find some of Perry's flaws to be as fascinating as they are aggravating.  To wit: Here's a blurb from an old E-mail I wrote you, courtesy of Big Media Vandalism's resident curmudgeon, my The Pondering Odie alter-ego, Octo Rooney:

Speaking of coonery: Does Madea qualify? I'm not going to hate on Tyler Perry because, as Shadow Henderson famously said AFTER the line of his I always quote: "if you grandiose muthafuckas played what the people want, then the people will come." Perry plays what the people want, and despite my aggravation with his hateration for Black people like myself, that is, light skinded successful people with edumacations, I cannot dismiss his old Hollywood studio mogul business sense. If his bootleg, ass-out, ghetto fabulous Beacon Theater gospel plays are indeed minstrelsy, what does it say about the Black folks who go see them? Bill Cosby said on that video clip that the images of Blacks depicted in the old days were the way Whites wanted to see Blacks; are Madea and the Browns the way their fans see themselves?  Follow-up question: Will Perry destroy "For Colored Girls?"

Let's dig into these, and other instigations and interrogations.


You were right to bring up what a lot of Perry's defenders point to as a case-closer, his titanic wealth. In an upwardly mobile black culture that reminds me of the white folks of the 1950's boom (minus any actual economic basis for it, just a desperate desire to move on up), box office receipts begin and end the conversation. The matter of whether any of these negro pageants approaches art is reserved for academics in kufi hats and tweed jackets with suede elbow patches the shape of Africa.

And for stray jokers like us.

We want a filmmaker as successful Perry to be making art on some level because we believe in the power of pop to change society. Seems like all the great pop world-changers leave us early: Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, Tupac Shakur. Notice I mention only musicians here. There really are no popular filmmakers with that kind of prophet-like influence. While David Lynch has the spirituality to bring it off, he's often too "weird" to address a prosaic and distracted world, The Straight Story notwithstanding. Terence Malick is in touch with the eternal, but he's too lost in his schoolbooks to speak to plain folks. Steven Spielberg uses his pop power to make obvious statements about the world's great tragedies (the holocaust, terrorism and terror wars, slavery, etc.) but he'd serve us better by doing more of those quietly monumental things he does, such as casting a dark-skinned black girl as Jeff Goldblum's daughter in The Lost World (without making any fuss about it!) or the rearview mirror shot in A.I., the loveliest evocation of abandonment and loss in the history of cinema (more throat-tightening than any of the painful separations in Roots). Meanwhile, Michael Moore and Oliver Stone know how to harness liberal outrage and maybe snag a few sensitive swing voters, but they don't have the elemental, apolitical perspective to bring us all together.

The world needs a Michael Jackson among filmmakers, yes, but African-America needs such a filmmaker most urgently. Precious just ain't cutting it. I often quote the critic Stephanie Zacharek, who said David Lynch's camera is "as sensitive as a set of fingertips," and that kind of sensitivity (in storytelling, not just subject matter) is what black folks desperately need yesterday. Why else do so many black folks cling to Spielberg's The Color Purple? It was the last "black" film that, for all its cartoonish negritude at times, paid such close and delicate attention to the emotional weather of its characters. A lot of it has to do with the way Spielberg choreographs action in the space, his gift for misdirection and slow revelation. The Spielberg who made The Color Purple is like the John Ford who made How Green Was My Valley and the Orson Welles who made The Magnificent Ambersons. You can watch the whole movie with the sound down and not miss a thing. (Though I suggest turning it back up whenever Adolph Caeser shows up: "Muh-muh-maybe sweeep out da cabooose!")

Tyler Perry has that potential. Even in For Colored Girls, which is all over the goddamn place, he shows an ambition that towers over so many other black filmmakers at his level. Most of the directors who rose in the wake of the late-80's African-American New Wave became reliable craftsmen in the Ho'wood thrill machine but abandoned any hope of uplifting the race. Tyler Perry is on the job. He is setting himself up as black America's reigning black cinevangelist.

And that's the problem.

Just as I say that there's nothing wrong with Spielberg's filmmaking that going broke couldn't fix, there's nothing so terrible about Perry's work that leaving the church out of it and owning up to his own personal stake in his routinely female protagonists' hard luck stories wouldn't give a powerful kickstart. Perry's films feel trapped in various strange and dark closets. That's what gives them a weird tension, like those tightly corseted '50's melodramas that the smarty pants critics sometimes compare his movies to. When he owns up to this personal connection on the screen as candidly as he has on Oprah's couch, his box office might plummet but his artistic stock might start to rise.

Oh, and I don't buy Dave Chappelle's conspiracy theory about emasculating black men via drag characters. Dudes in dresses are a comedy staple across all cultures, since, like, forever. On the contrary, with the endless procession of badass mofos that began in the 1970s, I'm less concerned that popular culture has robbed black men of their masculinity than that it has denied their basic humanity.


Don't ask me how this happened, but my TV found itself on BET the other day. I have reason to believe that my hand was possessed by some unseen evil force with a Weave(TM), and stopped working as soon as the remote flipped to that channel. On the screen was the beginning of Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married, Too? Since I hadn't seen Why Did I Get Married, One? I wasn't interested. But when I turned the channel, a woman who looked like Dawnn Lewis after she got cramps in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka appeared on my screen.

"Turn back! Turn this TV Baaaaack!!" said the possessed woman in a voice that sounded like Candyman. 
So this may be the first time I've seen a sequel before I've seen the original. The obsessive-compulsive in me is still itching.

I'm glad I watched it, not because it's good (it ain't), but because it has a scene that foreshadows one in For Colored Girls. Janet Jackson, whom Perry must think is the quintessential ice bitch, humiliates her husband Malik Yoba at work. A gay dude jumps out of a gigantic cake she has delivered to the job, and Janet says "you wanna act like a bitch? Well HERE'S YOUR MAN!" It made me think of Jackson's role in For Colored Girls, where she finds out her husband is on the Down Low. I blamed Perry for that silly subplot, as it wasn't in For Colored Girls when I first saw it on stage, but it's really Shange's plot point. She added it to the updated For Colored Girls she released a few years ago.

What do you mean by Perry “owning up to his personal stake in his routinely female protagonists’ hard luck stories?” Do you mean that his films are all surface trauma? I can’t compare the common threads running through Perry’s work to, say, the concept of guilt that powers Scorsese or the macho bullshit that occasionally sinks Michael Mann. Perry’s themes seem less like auteur theory and more like turn-by-turn directions to the same location: Jesusville.  Contrary to popular belief, his fan base of church folk starving for uplifting stories crosses racial lines. The same folks on line for Soul Surfer are on line for Madea’s Big Happy Family. They may not get some of the “Black humor,” but they are on the same Christian wavelength Perry’s films broadcast. For Christians, Pain and Redemption go together like rama-lama-lama and dingy-dee-dingy-dong. Perry’s films give them that, sometimes so much so that they become preposterous.

That repetition, or should I call it reinforcement, is comforting to Perry’s core audience. It’s taught to us in church, and the fundamentalist way it is taught, that whole “don’t question” mentality, is problematic from both an artistic perspective and a humanistic one. That latter issue is beyond the scope of this conversation, but the former is fair game. When I was a kid, church felt like a Tyler Perry stage play. There was some really good singing bracketed by pious repetition. Church always seemed like a re-run I was trapped in. They told me the same thing every week. The same woman got the Holy Spirit every single week. The same gossipy, hat wearing nosy bitches violated Matthew 7:1. The deacons passed around the collection plate and the preacher’s wardrobe got fancier and his garage got fuller. They gave us grape juice and matzoh and said it was de Lawd.

And we sang—which I loved and still love. Note that Perry’s movies edit out the musical numbers in much the same fashion as James L. Brooks butchered I’ll Do Anything. His moves seem to be yearning for those moments when people break out of their existences and belt out their emotions. Look at how fiery and interesting those monologues in For Colored Girls are. That they seem so out of place leads us back to Perry’s biggest problem: He needs some directorial schooling. If anyone could make this dramatic schizophrenia work, it’s Perry. He may not have the talent, but he has the balls. The man is audacious, and even at his most batshit crazy, you almost feel as if he COULD have made it work had he been more schooled in the visuals. Macy Gray’s whacked out abortionist is a WICKED set piece; Perry seems to be channeling the darkest heart of the Black church, the part that puts it so far right that it deserves its own show on Fox News. He also puts in his movies over-the-top yet almost brilliant curlicues of paranoia on the church’s homophobia. These WOULD be brilliant if he were more adept at execution.

Perhaps I misspoke (or miswrote, as the case may be here). Perry’s SECOND biggest problem is his lousy directing skills. His BIGGEST problem is his belief that he owes his audience. They elevated him to his position, and now he feels as if he owes them. Which, at one point, he DID owe them. But when can he sign this check “Paid in Full” so he can move on? When does Shirley Caesar let him off the hook with a well-timed verse of “No Charge?” He’s made 10 movies; isn’t that enough? He’s like the M.C. Hammer of Black filmmakers, dragging along old ‘hood chums because he feels he owes them; meanwhile, they are bankrupting his creativity.

The “Dave Negro Selznick” in Perry needs to branch out. With his money and power, he can do something useful like make another Sounder, or resurrect Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series. I have some hope for the latter, courtesy of Perry taking an acting role in the next Alex Cross movie. I am actually looking forward to seeing if Perry truly can act, and if he, like many actors-turned-directors, will learn from watching a more experienced director direct him. What do you think?

Next time, I’ll talk about why I believe Perry could direct a love story as old-fashioned and Afrocentric as Claudine AND pull off something on the emotional level of Spielberg’s The Color Purple. And I’ve always said I wanted to see Spike Lee’s Bring In Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, but I wonder if I’d rather see Tyler Perry’s version.


Janet Jackson (in the Married films and For Colored Girls) and Taraji P. Henson (in I Can Do Bad All By Myself) have been really powerful muses for Perry. Their scenes of emotional devastation and transformation are what I mean by his "personal stake" in the films. His abused and embittered female protagonists are, in effect, him. How can I presume so much?  Well, he's copped to having been molested and beaten as a child. Everyone senses something effeminate and eccentric about his persona. (Gossips take this speculation a lot further, but we won't.) In a great New Yorker article on Perry, Hitlon Als cites an anecdote the director told about a strange man on the block he grew up on. Als says Perry' needs to include more of these troublesome eccentrics in his work.

Actually, he does put offbeat characters in his films but holds them at arms length until they get a haircut, take a bath, turn to Jesus, etc. In I Can Do Bad All By Myself, we have a grubby foreigner who we and Taraji are led to suspect is a child molester. Before Taraji and the Black Audience can accept him, he must cut off that bushy beard (to reveal a telegenic latin stud) and prove himself manly and virtuous by standing up to the real child molester, Taraji's surly, no-account boyfriend. Perry Plot points like these remind me of Terry Gilliam's critique of E.T.: If it's about Elliot learning what it means to love, why make the creature so cute? Why not make him ugly and smelly and have Elliot learn to love that? (For the record, I love me some E.T., but I'll be damned if Gilliam don't got a point there!)

It's Perry's vision of Black Correctness, not the supposed "coonery" Spike Lee is complaining about, that gives me shortness of breath. And Spike has often been just as guilty of it; his cynical, secular eye just does a better job of camouflaging it with wild sex scenes and Scorsese bravura. These filmmakers cry about perceptions of us as monolithic, yet they always reach for stock Ebony/Jet/70's album cover images of black life. Your best friend Armond White has written of the "prison of white imagination" but for the past 20 years we've been doing hard time in the prison of the black church's imagination. The black church so often rides shotgun with the most mainstream, corporate, complacent positions. You put it brilliantly when you said, "Perry seems to be channeling the darkest heart of the Black church, the part that puts it so far right that it deserves its own show on Fox News."

If Roger Ailes reads your last entry, expect to see one of those pastors who supported George W. back in the days get his get his or her own Hour of Power on Fox. Damn you.

Yes, I am just as baffled as you are about the lack of black musicals in an age when the hard-put working class audience out there is all but crying out for escapism that doesn't always weigh a ton.

Funny you should mention troublesome eccentrics. I was watching Jo Jo Dancer today, and it reminded me of the characters Richard Pryor portrayed in his stand-up. People like Mudbone and the wino are gloriously weird people, fascinating for not only their thought processes but also because, as odd as they were, we were familiar with them. Who didn't have a Mudbone or a wino in their 'hood? And Pryor is not judgemental, opting to merely present his characters and let us respond to, or recoil from, their eccentricities. The examples of Perry's weirdos you cite are good ones, but you sense the man can't commit to just letting somebody be fantastically fucked up. Or maybe he can...Hold that thought for a moment.

Flaubert supposedly said "Madame Bovary c'est moi." Tyler Perry identifies with those downtrodden, abused women in his movies, and it has nothing to do with sexual preference. It's completely predicated on his being raised by women, and finding strength and comfort in their struggle. He makes their trials his own because, as you noted, he has copped to being molested and abused. You would think women--and Black women in particular--would find that noble, but some of the sistahs do not. They're enslaved to a different kind of image of what Black men should be, and with whom they should identify. Any perceived weakness makes misguided sistahs like Jacque Reid embrace their inner Benita Buttrell. Unfortunately, Perry is just as guilty of this macho mindset in most of his movies, which is simultaneously odd and appropriate. After all, he's identifying with these women.

"It's Perry's vision of Black Correctness, not the supposed "coonery" Spike Lee is complaining about, that gives me shortness of breath."
Ah yes, the revered Black Correctness, or as they Ebonically put it, "Keepin' it Real." Perry suffers that affliction, as does his nemesis, Spike Lee. Let's really piss Shelton off, shall we? I can draw a straight line from Perry's stage plays/movies to Spike Lee's School Daze. As I wrote during BHM 2011, School Daze is a glorious hot mess. It is full of Perry's audaciousness, but tethered by Lee's directorial skill and Ernest Dickerson's glorious cin-tog. In Daze, Lee is speaking directly and solely to Black folks--probably for the last time in Lee's career--and like Perry, his audience is a specific set of Folks. I didn't go to a historically Black college, but I knew enough of them to follow even if I couldn't appreciate it fully.

Perry and Lee also share the desire to mock and reconstruct bougie Negroes. You can be a success, but it will cost you your nappy soul if you don't have God in a Perry film, or a dark-skinned mate in some of Lee's work. Lee's corrective--that thing designed to set you on the right path--is, of course, Spike Lee the director. Perry's corrective is usually his alter ego, the gun-totin', kid-slappin' Madea.

I really think Madea scares "the enlightened Negro" because she reminds them of that which they have "escaped." She's that reminder that, no matter how far you get in the majority's world, you still have dark colored clothing in your closet. Like a chitlin' circuit comedian, Madea is pure Black id. She is not polite, rarely goes to church, smokes, and reminds every single Black person of somebody they know. Madea tries my last nerve, just like the family members she reminds me of, and that's why I'm not a big fan. And after seeing Madea's Big Happy Family on bootleg today, I think I finally get why Madea is so important to Perry, and why she might be harder to give up than Whitney's crack:

Tyler Perry is the victimized character in his films, and Madea is his personal superhero.

She is what the therapist I go to for my own childhood traumas refers to as "a protector identity." In portraying this protector, Perry is saving himself. Surely, God will deliver Perry's characters, but He occasionally has avenging angels.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Perry's first movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. You forgot to mention BMV fave Kimberly Elise as an actress whom Perry works through. Elise is horribly mistreated by her husband, and Madea shows up with a chainsaw for some Waiting to Exhale style retribution. Madea shows up in Big Happy Family to slap the everlasting gobstopper shit out of anybody who disrespects her auth-or-itay, including the bad ass kids and ungrateful spawn of suffering Loretta Devine. I still think Madea works far better onstage than onscreen, but here's one aspect nobody mentions about her: She is consistently the bad cop of Perry's movies. She is unchanging, full of eccentricities, and Perry refuses to change her.

To close out my part of this discussion, I should mention that Perry's actresses, from experienced vets like Kathy Bates, Elise and Alfre Woodard, to newbies like Tessa Thompson, trust their director with their acting lives. He gets them to do things, and to go to places, that require incredible trust. Sometimes his lack of skills betrays them; other times he is spectacularly accurate. Matt Seitz points this out in his defense of Perry over at Salon:

" film after film, he gathers together some of the greatest African-American actresses in America -- actresses who are lucky to get one or two scenes in a film with a predominantly white cast -- in leading roles that let them chase dreams, make mistakes, fall in love, have their hearts broken, flirt, seduce, manipulate, preen, pout, rail against injustice, and endure and transcend Old Testament-level suffering. And they reward Perry with performances so heartfelt, and often so accomplished, that they make all of his films worth seeing no matter what you think of him as a director. Consider Jackson, who made no particular impression as the title character in her debut film "Poetic Justice," but has been knocking performances out of the park for Perry. She outdoes herself here...Perry gets at the mix of masculine hyper-competitiveness and feminine vulnerability that has always defined Jackson, and links it to the wily, lonely coldness often captured in Wyman and Crawford performances, a directorial gambit of tremendous perceptiveness."

You get the last word, my brother, but before you do:

Two things:

1. Jesus is going to light your ass on fire for calling Armond my "best friend."

2. Don't blame my prior post if Rev. Jeremiah Wright replaces Glenn Beck on Fox News. You'll see an ad for him on the bus stop, lookin' like this:


Lord, I think Seitz has the last word on this one. His defense of Perry and, more importantly, Perry's actresses, reminds me of the first kid on the playground to stand up to the bully (critical consensus). I think a lot of people are afraid to admit to Perry's strengths, or even to admit to finding him funny. (I mean "haha" funny.) In terms of great female performances, The Family That Preys might be the ultimate Perry women's picture. Even Sanaa Lathan, saddled with a character who goes from cold-hearted and colorstruck to chastened and mortified in a few short steps, dazzles in that flick. (She also looks distressingly fine every step of the way. Perry and cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita render her the breathtaking American equivalent of Penelope Cruz as seen through Almodovar's lens.)

For the record, I've always liked Madea and thought she was the second funniest character in Perry's stable, after the mustad-yellow-pants-wearing Mr. Brown. What?

(Also for the record, folks, Odie has never met Armond White, and if they ever do meet, it will be trouble.)

Anyway, you have made many brilliant observations in this convo, but I have to praise this one in particular:

"Tyler Perry identifies with those downtrodden, abused women in his movies, and it has nothing to do with sexual preference. It's completely predicated on his being raised by women, and finding strength and comfort in their struggle. He makes their trials his own because, as you noted, he has copped to being molested and abused. You would think women--and Black women in particular--would find that noble, but some of the sistahs do not. They're enslaved to a different kind of image of what Black men should be, and with whom they should identify. Any perceived weakness makes misguided sistahs like Jacque Reid embrace their inner Benita Butrell. Unfortunately, Perry is just as guilty of this macho mindset in most of his movies, which is simultaneously odd and appropriate. After all, he's identifying with these women."

Absolutely on the money. It's a problem in the culture at large as well, one that I deal with personally and observe all the time. Behavior that would be considered sensitive and mature in a white man viewed as weak/nerdy by a certain segment of the audience. (I've had some horrible first-and-last dates with a certain segment of that segment.) To be fair to Perry, he does allow for quite a few average, humble nice guys among his male leads. And when they get to vent at their bitchy wives or girlfriends, I drop my popcorn in the rush to deliver a standing-o. Which reminds me of the classic rejoinder to Perry's sistahs-in-peril tropes, Diary of a Tired Black Man.

You said:

"Perry and Lee also share the desire to mock and reconstruct bougie Negroes. You can be a success, but it will cost you your nappy soul if you don't have God in a Perry film, or a dark-skinned mate in some of Lee's work."

This is why they would make a great "Grindhouse"-like double bill. They should swap scripts. Lee would be forced to direct a dark-skinned "villain"; Perry a light-skinned one. Perry would--

You know, I just bored myself even imagining that scenario. The truth is that neither Spike Lee nor Tyler Perry are as limber or nimble or subtle or generous an auteur as we (you, me and every negro we know) really needs right now. Spike Lee has admitted that, while he's a pioneer among black filmmakers, he is not the cinema equivalent of the Jazz greats. He implied that the Parkers and Coltranes of African-American directors haven't yet arrived. I disagree. They're out there, just under-funded like Charles Burnett or M.I.A., like Wendell B. Harris. But what I really think we need is a Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder among black filmmakers. Spike may affect their world consciousness and Perry may do their kind of blockbuster business, but there is yet no black Steven Spielberg-- an ambassador of love with the virtuoso classical filmmaking chops to give his simple message true force. "Thank God," some would say, but I say, "God willing, one day." We could also use a David Lynch or Apichatpong Weerasethakul (which is to say, extending the Jazz metaphor, a Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk or Miles Davis), somebody who's willing to go deep into the sub-levels of our dreams and delusions without fear of embarrassment or absurdity.

Nothing would make me happier than to see a great success like Perry become that kind of filmmaker. But winning the lotto and having Sanaa Latham attend to me like one of the Prince of Zamunda's Royal Bathers would also make me happy, know what I mean?


the kevin scurry blog said...

Wow. Incredible job here, gents.

Steven Boone said...

Thanks, Bill, glad you liked it.

No dissenting comments here yet, but from what I read elsewhere, dissenters are treating this post the way they treat Perry's movies: A quick glance and then run screaming. :)

odienator said...

SB, we've really causing trouble with this piece! People over on Ebert's FB page are debating it (one called us "the intelligista," which is "the hilarious"), and other places are linking to it:

I'm waiting for Madea to drive her car through my hotel window.

Steven Boone said...

Yeah, I'd followed a FB friend's link to Ebert's page and saw the "intelligentsia" comment. I wanted to respond, but apparently I can't add comments to Ebert's page. Cuz I'm not a FB friend, I reckon.

If you and I are the black intelligentsia, then Meth and Red should be running for Congress. Actually, the guy spelled it "intellligencia"- which is the name of a group of Marvel supervillains. That's more like it.