Wednesday, March 18, 2009

EW to Tyler Perry: Do You Care About Black People?

Earlier this week Entertainment Weekly posted an article online that sought to answer the question: Is Madea bad for Black America? In my experience with Entertainment Weekly, it's not too often that they engage social politics, especially as it relates to race, so I think it's refreshing to see the publication exercising a bit of social consciousness. And the article isn't half bad either. I won't pretend like EW breaks any new ground in their dissection of Tyler Perry's films and their subsequent success, but the article does manage to offer one interesting point of thought:

"Tyler Perry understands that much of his audience is African-American women — the most ignored group in Hollywood — so he's doing movies that speak to them. You could see these films as parables or fables. There's a black prince figure who shows up for black women who've been frustrated, unhappy, or abused. That's the real reason critics don't like Perry's movies: They're made for churchgoing, working-class black women."
Most people that know me know that I have a love/hate relationship with Tyler Perry. I've seen Family Reunion and Why Did I Get Married? (Janet!) in theaters, saved The Family that Preys for rental, and watched Diary of a Mad Black Woman on TBS, or something. So yeah, I've put money in the man's pockets. But, without even approaching the argument that Perry's films depict the Black community from a heavily-stereotyped perspective that no white directer could ever get away with, my biggest issue with all of Perry's film had previously been their predictably and overall staleness. You can only witness so many drug-addicted prostitutes find Jesus before you start wanting more from life. However, reading the above quote from EW's article made me realize that Perry's approach to female characterization is much more problematic.

Now, I'm not a "churchgoing, working-class black women," but if I was, I'd like to think I'd be pissed off after watching a Perry film. I remember finishing Why Did I Get Married? and thinking, damn, he just threw all of these women under a bus.

I can't think of a single female character in that film that ever has a fighting chance at coming out of that ski cabin with a slice of self-respect, not even Jill Scott. If Perry's film's are for working-class women, then why would those same women feed into a storyline that belittles their ambition? From Sharon Leal's character, who secretly has her tubes tied without telling her husband so that she might excel in the workplace, to Janet Jackson's, who forgets to properly secure her infant son into his car seat while rushing home from work, Perry makes it clear that these women can't balance a career with the demands of domesticity. Yes, Tasha Smith's character runs a successful hair salon, but she also emasculates her significant other in the process. The only woman not directly at fault for the trouble in her marriage is Jill Scott's character, who is conveniently unemployed.

And if Perry's message is aimed toward churchgoing women, then what about the fact that Scott's character can't even manage to function for a few months after leaving her husband. Instead of seeking comfort in her faith, and herself, she immediately remarries, and any sense of confidence that she gains by the end of the film is in direct relation to the amount of love she is shown by her new husband.

The only woman with any real agency in Perry's films is Madea, and she's played by a man.

The gender politics in Why Did I Get Married? are handled irresponsibly, and ultimately just cast modern women in a unflattering light, as if any sort of personal or professional advancement must come at the expense of a happy home. The notion that a woman can't pursue her individual goals without falling short as a wife and mother is so dated at this point, that Perry should be taken to immediate task for just being plain lazy.

And if Married isn't enough, check any of his other films. Sanaa Lathan plays a self-centered career woman in The Family that Preys, and her storyline even comes with the assumption that she would not have made it nearly as far in the workplace without engaging in a long-term affair with her boss. I'm sure the same churchgoing audience that was left gasping when Blair Underwood's character slapped his fiance in Family Reunion, was cheering when Lathan's character was backhanded over a serving counter by her husband in Preys. Even his casual approach toward domestic violence would seem to suggest that Perry doesn't have the best interest of his female characters in mind at all, but instead would rather go for shock value in pursuit of a stronger box office performance.

The fact that Perry is on his way toward surpassing John Singleton and the Hughes brothers as one of the most financially successful contemporary Black filmmakers is disheartening, to say the least. Films like Higher Learning may not have been perfect, but they were far more socially ambitious and responsible; and you know, good.

I get so tired of hearing people say that one shouldn't knock the man's hustle, when in reality, his hustle is only perpetuating the marginalization of Black Hollywood. You can't tell me Angela Basset had any business starring in Meet the Browns. Our Black actresses are taking these roles because they don't have any other options, which would be fine if Perry actually presented them with material that matched their talent. But it doesn't matter how many #1 films Perry produces, he still won't be able to carry his actresses to mainstream, Halle Berry fame; not because they don't deserve it, but because he's not opening any new doors in his quest for millions. The players in Perry's world are circumstantial. Gabrielle Union is interchangeable with Kimberly Elise as far as mainstream audiences are concerned, and Tarij P. Henson received a career boost from Benjamin Button, with Preys acting as more of a side-hustle. It's hard to respect a hustle that leaves its supporting players in the dust, and while it may not be entirely Perry's fault that his actresses aren't achieving mainstream sustainability, I don't think he's too concerned with giving them the films to get them there either.

Tyler Perry is in a unique position to sell Black films to diverse audiences, but what good is that increased exposure to the Black experience if it's presented through such a predictable and limited lens?


Countdown To Change... said...

you know what? i saw Madea Goes to Jail over the weekend, and i must say that i felt a lil like you felt in your blog. Like really Tyler? Another black woman down and out and gets rescued? Plus while sitting in the theatre, i was thinking to myself, "this movie would never win any awards, it even seems like something was not quiet right with the cinamentography" I get the point you were trying to make Tyler, but that movie was so predictable!

BFloyd86 said...

Haha..oh yes. That cinematography is a whole other issue.