Before you go looking up what I may have written about Tyler Perry on this site, know that the only issue I’ve personally ever had with Perry after viewing the many movies and stage plays he’s created since 1998 is that his work has always been too predictable for me.
You know that someone is going to go through some major strife, and it’s usually because of the way the character lives his or her life (usually the latter). Whether it’s due to the fact that they either committed a sin (like Judith cheating on a good husband with a bad boy in Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor), had been abused in the past (like April in I Can Do Bad All By Myself), or because they hadn’t treated people right (Lord knows I couldn’t stand Andrea in The Family That Preys), there’s always a lesson to be learned. I had been pretty consistent with my support for years, but after a while, like my decision to switch from iOS to Android, I just couldn’t tell the difference between the old and the new, so I had to see what else was out there.
But for others, for instance, Spike Lee circa 2006, and many an online wordsmith, it was always Perry’s characters that were problematic. Many were deemed stereotypes that harkened back to the days of Amos ‘n’ Andy and minstrel shows. So for many years, as Perry gained more and more success, quite a few people, many being Black folks (some being MN contributors), tore his work apart.
Granted, Perry has an extensive fan base either way. They are the ones who’ve made his shows on OWN some of the most successful programs on all of TV, and they are the ones who fill up the seats at his stage plays and continue to buy tickets to his movies. But Perry still can’t shake the people who say that his work is detrimental to the Black populace as a whole. When confronted by one of those people, in particular, Rembert Browne from New York Magazine, Perry finally spoke in-depth recently about why criticisms of him and his work were so off-base, in his opinion.
A decade of thoughts about Tyler Perry ran through my mind in that moment, and even if he’d made me laugh in Brooklyn, I thought I owed it to him — and myself — to say that, for years, when he was the foremost black person presenting black characters and telling black stories, I thought Tyler Perry’s films and shows made my life harder.
“So did a lot of people,” Perry said, calmly, after I told him how I’d felt. “Which is surprising to me. Let me tell you what took me aback about that, when people were like, ‘How dare you put fat black people on television, these are caricatures, these are stereotypes’ — I was so offended because my aunt’s fat. My mother’s fat. My cousins are fat. People who are like, ‘How dare you — these harken back to Mammy, Amos ’n’ Andy.’ I would hear all these things, and I would go, hmmm.”
Perry continued, pointing out that while his characters happen to be mostly Black, they connect with all kinds of people because they often touch on “real issues.” Backing up his previous statements about those characters being like the people in his own family, he said what people see in his shows and films are not stereotypes, but rather, real individuals we all call kinfolk, even if we don’t want to admit it.
Perry, though, doesn’t see this argument as being about race so much as it is about class. “In some parts of the country, the audience is 60 percent white. And then I went to El Paso, and it was 60 to 70 percent Latino. And then I realized it’s not even about race as much as it is about stories that people can relate to,” he told me. “I know for a fact that a lot of my audience cannot afford to just get in the Volvo and go to a therapist and spend the day off and go to the spa,” he said. “The laughter and the dress and all of that stuff, it’s just the anesthetic to say, ‘Are you numb now?’ Let’s talk about some real issues,” like the relationship between a mother and her daughter, like drugs, like what’s behind infidelity. “There are so many people that society says their stories don’t matter because they’re poor.”
In other words, he still feels like an outsider, no matter how much money he’s worth. It’s almost as if his work is a purposeful way never to become a part of the group he loathes the most: the elite. “It is unfair for black people to say, ‘Carry my story in your story — show me in your story,’” he says. “And for people to say that they’re stereotypes of black people, that’s bullshit — it’s offensive. These are real versions of us. And every one of us has the right to tell our own story.”
This full interview had me thinking. Well, not about my predictability criticism. That’s still a problem. But it made me ponder on whether or not Perry truly has been misunderstood all these years by his “coonery and buffoonery” critics. Has he simply been berated for showing even the silliest, craziest side of us? A side of us that we often like to hide like the tabby cat we keep in the basement, far away from our superstitious grandma? From the obnoxious but lovable auntie to the mooching relatives and even the mothers who put men before their children, Perry shares the good, bad and the ugly. And while they’re not always the best images of men and women of color, many of us would be lying if we said we hadn’t come across them or even called them family.
I think it’s nice to want to see a variety of images of Black people on the big and small screen. It’s a reminder to one another of what we’re capable of in this world and where we’ve been, and I think that’s where some of the criticism stems from (and why there was an unhealthy obsession with the Cosby Show for all these years). But I can’t help but wonder if many of us have been coming at Perry all wrong, especially since his programs and films aren’t the only ones out there with men and women of color that we can consume. The attack on his characters reminds me almost of the arguments everyone had about all the slave, housekeeper projects that came out a few years ago (some of which were good). It would definitely be nice to broaden the subject matter, but why be ashamed of the real people in our history who’ve embodied all of the “good, bad and the ugly”? As long as we know who we are and what we’re capable of, why knock it? Just don’t watch it.
Do we want to see only positive images while quelling the rest, even if they are based on someone’s reality, in order to make a good impression on ourselves or for White folks who we think base their judgments solely on what they see on-screen? And why is it that we aren’t looking at certain forms of entertainment in the way that some of Perry’s fans do–as mere entertainment? Do we need to lighten up? As pure entertainment, Perry’s work doesn’t do it for me, so I’ve long stopped tuning in. But I can’t deny that it is work someone is connecting with–like a lot of the women in my church. And connecting to an audience is the main reason many a storyteller share their tales. Even if that audience doesn’t include his critics.
In a quest to push storytellers of television and film to share the most vibrant of images of people of color, I wonder, could we be a little too hard on Perry for keeping it a little too real?