Madea, Tyler Perry, and Church-Going Black Women
Last month, Lionsgate announced its acquisition of the feature film rights to Ntozake Shange's stageplay "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.". Musicvideo director Nzingha Stewart has penned the screenplay and will direct the film adaptation of the play which is comprised of 20 poems on themes of love, abandonment, domestic abuse, rape, abortion, and other issues as faced by black women. With this announcement, Lionsgate "touted its leadership role in producing and distributing a diverse roster of motion pictures about black characters."
"Evidence" of this leadership includes plans to release Sundance winner "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"; worldwide rights to "More Than a Game", a documentary about LeBron James' high school career; and Tyler Perry's next two films, "I Can Do Bad All by Myself" and "Why Did I Get Married Too?"
I'm excited about two of these five films. One guess which two.
I'm only a generation removed from the era in which it was a Big Deal for blacks to appear on a screen at all, small or large. Growing up, I heard older folks talk about gathering around whatever TV sets were available in the community to see an actual black performer (not a white one in black face). I always had a TV (and movies) at my disposal, but I still found it exciting whenever I saw characters with faces like mine and those of people in my community. I remembering standing in line with my mother and her friends for nearly two hours in order to see the screen version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. I was 14, hadn't read the book, and had no idea what the movie was about. All I'd been told in advance was, "It's about black women." The novelty of that, plus my mom and her friends' excitement about the movie was enough for me--I couldn't wait to see it.
Obviously now, 20-plus years later, such films are no longer an Event, and "about black women" alone is no longer sufficient to arouse my interest...or get me to buy a ticket. Exhibit A: BAPS and Exhibit B: Tyler Perry's films.
A recent Entertainment Weekly article takes a look at Tyler Perry's film franchise and purports to take readers "inside black America's secret culture wars":
''Tyler keeps saying that Madea is based on black women he's known, and maybe so,'' says Donald Bogle, acclaimed author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. ''But Madea does have connections to the old mammy type. She's mammy-like. If a white director put out this product, the black audience would be appalled.''
But it isn't just the stereotypes in Perry's movies that trouble his detractors. It's also what they consider to be his plantation-era attitudes about class. ''All of his productions demonize educated, successful African-Americans,'' says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts. ''It's a demonization that has long existed in certain segments of the black community.'' The schism reaches back to the days of ''house'' and ''field'' slaves — when the first African-Americans were segregated even from one another — and persists today in distinctions between light- and dark-skinned blacks. ''Tyler Perry is simply reflecting the thinking of a lot of uneducated, working-class African-Americans,'' Boyd says.
''Comedy and stereotypes go hand in hand,'' notes Nelson George, author of Blackface: Reflections on African Americans and the Movies and the memoir City Kid. ''That's why intellectuals have a hard time with humor.''
''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,'' Bogle says. ''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, says Nelson George: They're made for churchgoing, working-class black women, not urban hipsters (or tenured professors). 'Tyler Perry speaks to a constituency that is not cool,'' George says. ''There's nothing cutting-edge about the people who like Tyler Perry. So, for a lot of other people, it's like, 'What is this thing that's representing black people all over the world? I don't like it. It doesn't represent me.'''
[all emphasis mine]
"Intellectual" means diffferent things to different people, but I'm certainly more inclined to consider myself an intellectual than to identify as uneducated...and yet I wouldn't say that I have a hard time with humor. Comedy based on stereotypes treads on shaky, but potentially subversive and brilliant ground. I believe Madea falls squarely in the "shaky" category.
I'm neither an urban hipster nor a tenured professor, but I'm not a fan of Tyler Perry's movies either. To me, they are one-note--and not a note I find particularly funny.
Madea [pronounced MUH deah short for "Mother Dear"] et al simply aren't everyone's cup of tea, for a host of reasons; comedy is, after all, subjective. But it seems where Tyler Perry's films are concerned, it goes deeper than that.
I've read bloggers and commenters who, in reaction to criticism of Perry's films, and to Madea in particular, say that the "real" reason these "other people" criticize Perry is because they feel the need to "prove" themselves to or look good in the eyes of whites, are embarrassed by Perry's "regressive, down-market archetypes," or worry that Perry's films affirm stereotypes of blacks, and thus make us "look bad" in the eyes of whites. Here's one such comment from a TalkingPointsMemo blog entry entitled, "Tyler Perry, America's Auteur":
But perhaps in this "culture war", "bourgie" blacks aren't on the offensive, but rather the defensive against those who would treat Perry's films as a litmus test for authentic blackness--as in, "If you don't like Madea/Tyler Perry films, then you're bourgie/wannabe-white/concerned with impressing whites." It saddens me when blacks do to each other--and ourselves--what so many have fought and sacrified to stop others from doing: putting us in confining boxes.
The EW article addressed the "culture war" waging over Perry's films with regard to class, but it neglected to mention the "scolding" Perry's films give women, according to blogger Nichole writing at PostBourgie.com:
"Be quiet, in appearance and voice. Don't try to be more than what you are. Serious ambition is a danger to the family. Be grateful for "good enough." Wait for the right man to notice you. Don't bring attention to yourself. Be appropriately thankful when a man takes care of you." Read the rest.
Just how popular is the Madea/Tyler Perry machine? According to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, Perry's latest, "Madea Goes to Jail" debuted as the No. 1 movie in America its opening weekend (February 20, 2009), bringing in over $41 million, representing 34 percent of the weekend moviegoing audience. As of March 22, the film has grossed over $87 million.
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