It all began about a month ago, uptown in Harlem. After having an intimate, family-style dinner with friends, a group of us stood on the host’s stoop, stuffed from a home-cooked meal, tipsy from just enough pinot. All evening, voices swelled and calmed as conversations about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and reenactments of favorite scenes from Martin came and went. It was the perfect night.
Then, while leisurely grabbing our belongings, slipping on shoes, and readying ourselves to head back to our respective boroughs, the mood shifted. Two guests — engaged in an offshoot discussion — brought up one name: Tyler Perry. You could cut the air with a knife.
All it took was the mere mention of the Black, 47-year-old filmmaker, producer, and writer to turn a kumbaya night of adulting into a competitive, raucous display of us versus them — the woke versus the unwoke if you will. It was like an obnoxious comment section thread come to life: Those who liked his work went on the defense; those who didn’t were annoyed with those who did. Everyone talked over one another.
I looked on, amused, calculating when to interject. Shit, I’ve really only ever seen one and a half of his films, I thought. Then it hit me. “Umm, who here has actually seen more than two of his films tho?” I shouted. Silence. “Is anyone planning to see his new movie next month?” I continued, referring to Boo! A Madea Halloween, in theaters this Friday. Laughter and side-eye ensued from both Perry naysayers and defenders. Vibe crisis averted; discord quelled.
Still, I wondered, Why hadn’t I really given more of Tyler Perry’s films a chance? And why was I so ready to have an opinion on something I knew so little about? The man’s received Oprah’s blessing — he has four programs under the OWN umbrella. My mom likes his films. They can’t be that bad. Hell, a few friends I dined with that evening considered themselves passive (if not huge) supporters. These are my people, my hive. What am I missing?
So here I am, two meals and two bags of Black Forest Gummy Bears later, after a nine-hour viewing party featuring six of his most popular films (according to friends and relatives) as either writer or director. While I’m not feeling completely aggro, like that one guy after he binged The Walking Dead, I’m not walking away from this completely unscathed. Below is a summary of just what happened.
Films Watched: Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Daddy’s Little Girls, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, A Madea Christmas, Why Did I Get Married?
What I Learned: The Men
Black leading men in Perry’s world operate on two very distinct planes: triflin’ asshole scumbags, and godly saviors in search of the right woman. In Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), you can see this clearly between Charles and Orlando. Charles (Steve Harris) both physically and emotionally abuses his wife Helen (Kimberly Elise), the movie's protagonist. He then kicks her out of their massive, upper-crust home, leaving her penniless with only the clothes on her back (literally, she’s tossed out in an evening dress). Charles is every bit the villainous "evil man" archetype that “good Christian girls” are warned about by fearful parents. Meanwhile, adorable Orlando (Shemar Moore), comes into Helen’s life with sweeping cornrows, wearing a bandana in place of a crown, ready to be her knight in starched denim.
This formula dominates Perry’s story lines to the point that, after seeing three of his films in a row, I fell asleep. And not just nap sleep, but “my bag of gummy bears fell on the floor and I’ve missed multiple phone calls” sleep.
What I Learned: The Women
In Perry’s world — or the Perryverse — a woman’s happiness revolves around her ability to acquire a man and maintain a relationship without any missteps. She must cook for him, dance with him, and love him without question. This is typically in spite of her past hardships and traumatic experiences. Like, for example, suffering silently as a victim of physical abuse at the hands of guys like Charles above. Or, as demonstrated by Julia (Gabrielle Union) in Daddy’s Little Girls (2007), it seems successful, career-oriented women can only prosper when men like Monty (Idris Elba) are present and able to engage in awkward, ham-handed dialogue (see below). Businesswomen need strapping, wholesome lads in grimy pickup trucks to set us along a righteous path. Without this man — who is also often from “the other side of the tracks,” so to speak — we are lost souls. We are bitter, petulant shells of our former selves floating aimlessly through the Perryverse. Though, oddly enough, I was still entertained watching this play out.
What I Loathed
After examining a few of Perry’s classics, I realized there was no reason to break down each of his films. They’re simply too predictable and their messages too similar to warrant play-by-plays.
Yet, my frustration peaked after watching Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (2013), starring Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Lance Gross (and even Kim Kardashian). Full disclosure: I tried sitting through this a while back, rather unsuccessfully. My typical issues with Perry movies aside, what riled me up then as it does now was the kicker. Smollett-Bell’s Judith plays a tightly wound married woman in her late 20s, whose punishment for cheating on her husband is...contracting HIV. Because in the Perryverse, women who royally screw up are damned — forever. Redemption is in scarce supply and best reserved for the boys.
With an estimated net worth of $440 million, Tyler Perry is one of the most successful African-American filmmakers of all time. He’s also one of the most hated directors and screenwriters by critics and his contemporaries (though some have changed their opinion). The most fascinating part about all of this is that none of that matters. His audience is large enough to keep him comfortably afloat. Clearly, Perry’s influence is vast, so why not use that platform to portray something real instead of peddling harmful stereotypes? HIV is far from a death sentence, and using the diagnosis as moral punishment, as Perry does in Temptation, is unacceptable. This could have been an opportunity for Perry to educate his audience about a very real health crisis. Instead, Judith’s HIV status leaves her alone and ostracized from society. She’s actually hobbling down a sidewalk in her final scene (seriously). It was all too much. I needed to order tacos after this one.
What I Liked
I actually enjoyed Why Did I Get Married? Up until now, it was the only one of his films I’d watched in its entirety. It’s like a great Lifetime movie in the best way: Though it's predictable and melodramatic, the characters are relatable and the story engaging. It isn’t preachy, and the the cast doesn’t feel as disjointed as in previous films.
However, my biggest takeaway from this self-imposed, torturous experience was the aha! moment of realizing how many iconic Black actors Perry has kept in rotation: Kimberly Elise, Tasha Smith, Malik Yoba, Alfre Woodard, Sanaa Lathan… I could go on. Growing up, these names were as common in my household as say, Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet. At this point, we all know that Hollywood is unforgiving when it comes to hiring Black and brown talent, and the fact that those names are still unknown to mainstream audiences is a sad reality.
Where Do I Fit In?
As you can guess, another Tyler Perry production isn’t on my must-see list any time in the near future. I’m not Perry’s demographic; nor is he mine. I have no business spending any additional time in the world of a filmmaker who constantly views me — and women in general — as objects to fix. In the same way that I — a young, outspoken, liberal-minded, HAPPY Black woman — am possibly Perry’s worst nightmare, sitting through nearly two hours of his latest Halloween-themed, Boo! A Madea Halloween would be mine.