Issues

Let’s Talk Tyler Perry: On Madea, Black Cinema, and Detecting “Uncle Toms”

By:Stephanie Jean

Alright. So it’s time to discuss Mr.Perry. Admittedly, I’d consider myself a big fan of him, along with the rest of my family. Tyler’s been a household name in my home since his very first film, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”.  However, he’s been a long running joke about everywhere else. It’s no secret that Perry’s work faces a lot of backlash from both black and white communities.

His shows, films, and stage plays are often branded as stereotypical, melodramatic, and even detrimental to black culture. His infamous alter ego, Mabel “Madea” Simmons”, has been critically panned time and time again by mainstream critics and he has no Oscar nominations as of 2015.

Black peers like Idris Elba and Spike Lee have also been vocal about their distaste. And still, Tyler Perry is the richest black male entertainer. His networth is a whopping 400 million, surpassing Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bill Cosby. He currently has four shows on air and not one of his movies has ever failed to make back it’s budget. By multiple definitions, Tyler Perry is successful.

So in the words of Oprah Winfrey: what is the truth? Is Tyler an Uncle Tom who sold out his race or a visionaire that helps tell more black narratives?  My answer? It’s…complicated. I fully understand the problem with Tyler Perry and more specifically, Madea. A black man cross-dressing to portray black women will always raise alarms. It often screams misogynoir, even if that isn’t the intention.  And while Mabel Simmons is a hoot, it’s unsettling that the “angry black woman” trope has become so popularized.

That stereotype is already hurtful and now Tyler’s adding in the idea that beloved black mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and caretakers are physically unhealthy and unappealing. (Unless I missed the memo and Madea is supposed to be pretty??) Not to mention she’s been played out. I personally had to stop after “Madea’s Witness Protection” and haven’t watched any of Tyler’s more recent movies that include her.  Hulu keeps trying to get me to watch “A Madea Christmas”, but I can’t get through it.  Homegirl has run her course.

In multiple interviews,  Perry states that Madea spawned from relatives in his own life. He claims she’s seen so much success because his audience can relate. And honestly? He’s a little right. Madea probably does hit home for a lot of black people. Even my Haitian grandmother has madea like tendencies. But is that a good enough reason to keep plopping her on our screens ? Nah. Because it’s not just black women watching Madea and Madea isn’t all that black women are. We aren’t a combination of just African American vernacular, finger waving, and yelling. We are so much more. So when Tyler plucks Madea out of an inside joke and into mainstream media, it becomes a problem. It becomes a mockery.

But I wouldn’t call Tyler Perry an Uncle Tom. I don’t think he’s self hating and I certainly don’t think his goal is to sellout black people. Before Tyler Perry was Tyler Perry, he was Emmitt. A boy who turned to writing after escaping a physically abusive father. Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana ,Tyler is a rags to riches story.

His first stage play was in 1998 and he didn’t make a movie until seven years later. A lot of the same cast from his plays star in his films and shows, but he’s also provided roles for nearly every member of black hollywood. Gabrielle Union, Taraj P. Henson, Mary J. Blidge, and even Janet Jackson have all starred in his films along with lesser known names like Kimberly Elise, Rochelle Aytes, and  Lisa Arrindell Anderson.

Tyler’s helped start new careers, revive old careers, and bring new stories to the black community. Not to mention that aside from Madea, Tyler often does portray black people and black women in a positive light. A majority of his characters are educated, smart, and realistically flawed. And while none of this could ever absolve him from criticism, we should be cautious when it’s not our criticism.

Tyler may never get a good review from white critics. There’s a cultural difference that White America can’t understand and normal issues to us are deemed as “melodramatic” when they can’t relate. In addition, there’s always this subtle undertone that black stories simply aren’t deep enough. Tyler’s stories supposedly have no depth, but the same white rom-coms can be remade and retitled over…and over…and over.

And then win 2 Golden Globes and 5 MTV Awards. Stories about love, loss, anger, spirituality, and religion when told through a black lense won’t easily get white approval. Which is fine, because he doesn’t need it. None of us do. It’s important to remember that when critiquing Tyler Perry, it’s a matter of calling him in instead of calling him out. Because we are his main backers, the audience he’s speaking for, and the demographic he represents.

Like I said before, my opinion on Tyler is complicated. I’m not always happy with his portrayal of black women. I’m over Madea and think he should leave her behind. And looking at the most recent box office numbers, America is about done with her to. However, I do think he’s talented, whether people (mostly white) want to admit it or not.  He has to be in order to be the richest black male in the business.

I don’t think Tyler should be the only black voice in Hollywood, and it’s good that new voices are arising like Lee Daniels and women like Ava Duvernay and Shondra Rhimes. A whole community should never rest on one person’s shoulders, which is why diversity and representation is so essential. Nevertheless, Tyler’s work is doing some good, and we’ll be here to clock him when he falls short. Let’s just hope his next film is “Madea Gets Abducted by Aliens, Never to be Seen Again”.

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About The Author:Stephanie Jean is a nineteen year old blogger, writer, affiliate marketer, and student. She is currently studying Sociology and spends a good amount of time commenting on social justice and mainstream media. You can find her website at thugilly.com and literally everywhere else @thugilly.

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