Political Physics: Tyler Perry – Blaxploitation Artist or Blacktastic Entrepreneur…or Both?

a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

Madea Goes to Jail Movie Poster

Last week Tyler Perry made NAACP history when he donated $1 million to the organization – the largest gift to date by an individual in the history of the civil rights organization.  In a press release Tyler Perry said, “he made the gift to honor the group for its 100th Anniversary.”

If you have been living in a cave somewhere and do not know, Tyler Perry is the hugely successful actor, screenwriter, director, producer and author of such films as Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea Goes to Jail and Why Did I Get Married?.

Perry’s life is often described as a “rags to riches” epic.  At one point he was a homeless, high school drop out.  Fast-forward more than twenty years later and he is a multi-millionaire.  According to CBS News, Perry “has had five movies open number one at the box office in the last four years and his eight films have grossed more than $418 million, one of the highest average grosses per firm in the industry.”

Perry started out writing, directing and producing small gospel plays.  But in 2005 his first movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman, became a surprise hit.  He spent $5.5 million producing the movie and it eventually grossed $50.6 million.  Even though critics panned the movie, a star was born.  Demetrius D. Walker said it best in his blog DWalkerSpeaking; “Nobody in Hollywood can hold a candle to Tyler Perry’s meteoric rise to stardom in the last decade.  From niche market gospel plays to Black blockbuster bravado, Perry is the American Dream realized — a rags to riches phenomenon.”

Perry’s formula is unprecedented – he owns 100 percent of his movies (though distributed by Lionsgate) and his TBS television show.  Perry deal with TBS was extraordinary; the network contracted for 100 episodes up front, which meant the show was automatically syndicated.  According to CBS News, that deal a long was worth $200 million.

Today, Tyler Perry Studios – a 31-acre movie and television production facility – is one of the largest independently owned studios outside of Hollywood.  It opened in October 2007 and Perry financed the venture himself.  According to Ebony, “He makes all his films there, releasing two a year; he employs as many as 400 people. The studio lot has five sound stages, a gym, and even a chapel.”  Perry named his studio “34th Street” as in “Miracle on 34th Street.”

For all intents and purposes, Perry is a true Hollywood success story.  He saw a niche market – catering to largely African American Christians – and turned that into a film and television empire.

But Perry’s critics argue that his type of filmmaking is nothing more than “blaxploitation” repackaged and that his main protagonist Madea, a feisty pistol-packing grandmother, is a new version of the classic “buffoon.”  Blaxploitation is a film genre that originated in the 1970’s.  The films were the first to employ African American actors in lead roles and targeted the black population.  However, the films were also criticized for their stereotypical characterization of African Americans and glorification of violence.  Hence the name.

In fact, this past summer in an interview Ed Gordon on Our World with Black Enterprise, Spike Lee compared both of Perry’s television shows, “Meet the Browns” and “House of Payne” to characters from minstrel shows.  Lee said, “Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors, but I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery. I know it’s making a lot of money and breaking records, but we can do better.  I am a huge basketball fan, and when I watch the games on TNT, I see these two ads for these two shows, and I am scratching my head.  We got a black president, and we going back to Mantan Moreland and Sleep ‘n’ Eat?”

On the Assata Shakur Forum, one person commented, “Black people flock to see Tyler Perry’s over-marketed comedic shows, plays, and sitcoms. I don’t understand how we as a People can pay to see this type of derogatory stereotype as the kind of people we are.  The fact that Perry can build a media empire from the backs of our collective image by exploiting that image, is a sad affair to behold, but what is more sad is the number of us who foolishly find justification for supporting this nonsense.”

Perry dismisses the notion that his films are exploitative or demeaning to African Americans.  In an interview with 60 Minutes when asked to respond to Spike Lee’s comments, Perry said, “Let me tell you what Madea, Brown, all these characters are bait. Disarming, charming, make-you-laugh bait, so I can slap Madea in something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family, any of those things, you know.”  For Perry, Madea is a vehicle….to some degree unimportant.  What is important is the message – the message of God, love, faith, forgiveness and family.

I have seen almost every Tyler Perry movie.  I totally agree that Madea is a caricature.  However, I know that Madea will be about 15 to 20 minutes of the film.  It is the rest of the film that I go to see.  I go for the God, love and all that other stuff.  And I am okay with Tyler Perry using Madea as “bait” if even a fraction of the audience is influenced by that message.

But is that acceptable?  In the 1970’s, people argued that blaxploitation was acceptable because it increased the opportunity for black actors in Hollywood.

What do you think?  Are Tyler Perry films the “blaxploitation” films of the 2000’s?  Is it okay for Madea to be portrayed as a “buffoon” to get a bigger message out to an audience?

Let me know what you think in the comments?