It’s really messed up when White folks don’t treat us well; but for some reason, it is probably more disappointing when our own people don’t treat us well either.
I am talking about Tyler Perry and how recently, two actors’ unions announced that they were barring members from participating in his newest play, Madea on the Run. According to Deadline, production, which was slated to begin on September 3, was put on the “Do Not Work” list for both SAG-AFTRA and the Actors’ Equity Association. Both are unions that represent stage actors.
According to the report, the boycott comes after Perry and other producers of the project neglected to sign a contract with Equity. The union contract would ensure things like a set minimum wage, health benefits, and safe working conditions. As Deadline reports, SAG-AFTRA doesn’t represent stage actors but is barring its members from participating in the show because of a reciprocal agreement it has with Equity.
This is not the first time that a Tyler Perry production has found itself trouble with unions. According to Shadow And Act, in 2008, the Writers Guild of America, West sued Perry’s production studio for an “unfair labor practice complaint.” This suit was filed after the studio fired four Black writers (all African American) from his TBS comedy series, House of Payne.
As reported by Shadow And Act, the four said that they were allegedly let go after Perry refused to agree to a WGA contract that “would give the writers health care benefits or pensions.” Likewise:
The WGA said that the four writers were fired after negotiations between the Writers Guild and representatives of Perry’s production company, broke down. The writers were also working on the development of what was then a new comedy being produced by Perry, “Meet the Browns.”
The Black film site also reports that the matter was eventually resolved, although the details of the agreement were not made public.
Madea on the Run, which as the title suggests, is about Madea being on the run from the law, is supposed to mark Perry’s return to the stage. No word yet on how this boycott will affect cast members, which include Cassi Davis, Claudette Ortiz and a slew of other Black actors and actresses.
I have heard of independent producers and directors, particularly Black producers and directors, going around the unions before. This often has to do with the costs associated with producing a union-approved film being too high (those insurance and retirement benefits have to come from somewhere). In the book, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (as well as the documentary Baadasssss!), famed Black director Melvin Van Peeples spoke rather frankly about how he had to pretend like he was making a porn film in order to psyche out the actors’ unions and get his cult-classic film produced.
But what makes Perry’s situation interesting is that he is no longer an outsider. In fact, some would argue that although he remains independent, he is still very much an insider with a lot of pull, and most importantly, money to spread around Hollywood. If I had to categorize Perry’s film empire, I would say he is like the Black version of George Lucas. Not only has he helped to get some Black films onto the screen that would have struggled to otherwise, including Peeples and Precious, but he is also credited with helping and reviving the careers of many long-forgotten Black actors. Then there is his fruitful relationship with the OWN Network.
All this to say that as a Black businessman with a vast empire made off the backs of Black people, he should be ensuring that all of his Black workers are protected and compensated fairly. And he certainly should not still be producing non-union productions. Productions are able, under union rules, to hire non-union actors and actresses (although they have to give a good reason why they didn’t go with union workers first). So it is not like the requirements are hurting his ability to create. The only benefit at this point to not hiring union labor is that it cuts down on the bottom line.
And if that is the case, it sucks because non-union employees are often paid very little for their services and are not guaranteed benefits, including health insurance. Perry, who is a man who grinded his way to the top, should be able to sympathize with the hardships of being a struggling creative such as a writer or an actor and actress. He should also be actively working to make sure that our people, who struggle already to break past Hollywood’s racial and gender glass ceilings, are paid fairly.
Perhaps Perry has some side deal with the actors and actresses (you know how our people do)? I surely hope so. But if the reports are correct, right now he is behaving no differently than your average right-wing, entitled, union-busting Republican. And in my opinion, that is unacceptable.