I have a vivid memory of a city bus ride I took with my father when I was eight years old. We were on our way to the science museum and there were some young Black kids in the back of the bus acting up. Nothing outlandish–just a few unsupervised pubescents being loud. I could tell before he said anything that my daddy was not pleased with the way the kids were behaving, but he was never that “takes a village” kind of Black man, so instead of providing any kind of parental conversation or guidance for the noisemakers, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, let out an irritated breath and muttered a barely audible, “Make us look bad.”
I didn’t ask him what he meant. I clearly understood that my father was ashamed of the backseat Black kids, but more than that, I got the impression that he was not one of them. I gleaned from my daddy’s demeanor–the way he sat up straighter and held his head higher–that somehow he believed he was other then them, better than them, and that he certainly didn’t deserve the negative opinions strangers on the bus might attribute to him (because he had the same skin color as those unruly hooligans).
At that young age I didn’t yet realize that the strangers on the bus whose opinions he feared were the White ones. I began to recognize that as I grew older. I learned that he cared very much what White people thought of him and he took their judgement of him quite seriously. Over the years I saw him project that same negative judgement he himself feared so much onto countless Black youngsters who could have benefited from loving correction instead of his silent damnation.
That experience with my daddy is why I love and admire Tyler Perry so much, and why I appreciate Perry’s willingness to shine his own loving light on the “bad behavior” of people who share his skin color. Perry is not silenced, nor is his spine stiffened by what others think of him or his art — and yes, I do think it is the essence of art whenever we humans are shown our strengths and our flaws in a way that elicits strong emotion. Perry takes his art to another level by getting us to laugh about our pain as he educates and admonishes us NOT to pass our destructive flaws on to successive generations.
No one will ever complain that a violent, potty-mouthed buffoon in an Adam Sandler movie makes all white-skinned people look bad. I am an Adam Sandler fan, but the critics have HATED his movies for their “buffoonery.” I don’t go to see a Sandler movie expecting subtle themes, classic motifs and social responsibility. I go to laugh, and he makes me do that, so I pay for it. One of the privileges White film makers have (and likely never even think about) is that no matter what the subject matter of the film they want to make, their finished product will not be accused of reflecting (positively or poorly) on all White people.White filmmakers have the freedom to tell any story, any time, in any way they please.
Tyler Perry is choosing to claim that freedom for himself, and I applaud him for it:
“There are so many people who walk around saying ‘It’s stereotypical,’ and this is where the whole Spike Lee thing comes from, the negativity, that this is Stepin’ Fetchit, this is coonery, this is buffoonery, and they try to get people to get on this bandwagon with them, to get this mob mentality to come against what I’m doing…It’s always black people, and this is something that I cannot undo…I am sick of it. It comes from us. We don’t have to worry about anyone else trying to destroy us or take shots, because we do it to ourselves.”
Tyler Perry is making films for an audience that is buying tickets. Period. If he were to make a different kind of movie, he would likely be bringing in different numbers (as evidenced by Colored Girls, which grossed in total less than a Madea film makes in one weekend).
And, while it is true that Tyler is making googobs of money with his films, he does it while delivering messages of transformation, spirituality and personal growth. His films lecture deadbeat dads about their responsibility to support their kids, warn youngsters about the repercussions of unprotected sex, and uplift women who have been abused.
Name a social ill impacting the Black community and you can bet one of Perry’s films has touched on it. It’s not like he’s making movies that glorify sexual promiscuity, drug abuse and crime, so why is there so much vitriol against him?
If you are old enough to remember, you know that the Cosby show got much criticism back in the 80s for what many Black people at the time called an unrealistic portrayal of the Black family that few could relate to. Cosby’s upper middle class family headed by an obstetrician and an attorney who were happily married and raising their children together was hugely controversial, as evidenced by an exhibit from the Museum of Broadcast Communications:
“Some observers described the show as a 1980’s version of Father Knows Best, the Huxtables as a white family in blackface…One audience study suggests that the show “strikes a deal” with white viewers, that it absolves them of responsibility for racial inequality in the United States in exchange for inviting the Huxtables into their living room.” (-Darnell M. Hunt)
The attack on Tyler Perry and his right to portray what he chooses in his films is not a new phenomenon, it is just coming from a different side of the argument. Perry haters are complaining that his films reinforce negative stereotypes, but Cosby haters said just the opposite. Back then, Bill Cosby’s response to the controversy was swift and succinct, and it applies just as appropriately to Perry’s work today as it did to Cosby’s nearly thirty years ago:
“You . . . pretend that our existence is one whole shell of sameness. I tell the people who complain they don’t know people like the Huxtables, ‘You ought to get out more often.’ “
I don’t know about you, but I can name a real-life person for every one of Tyler Perry’s fictional characters–including Madea. These are people in my life whom I know and love, and though I might not always agree with or feel proud of their choices, I will always root for them to succeed at facing and eradicating their flaws — and, if some Black people are worried that the “strangers on the bus” will judge all Black people by the actions of a few characters in an obviously comedic film, whose problem is that…really?
“I am ashamed for the black poet who says: ‘I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,’ as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world…An artist must be free to choose what he does, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand…We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame…We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”