Not Safe for White People

Tyler Perry, Rev. Wright and the end of the chitlin circuit.

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In much the same way that February is an important, border-crossing season for many black media workers (it's BEM, or Black Employment Month), the weekend that a Tyler Perry movie opens has quickly become a special, border-crossing time for many white film writers.

The flicks written, directed, produced and acted in by Perry tend not to be screened in advance for critics (what would be the point, really?), but since the unexpectedly successful release of "Madea's Family Reunion" in 2005, scores of diligent white reviewers have rightly taken to venturing out to the nearest black-patronized theater in order to take in the Perry phenomenon against its presumptive natural backdrop. (There is such a thing as a black film reviewer, but, unfortunately, the number of them working that beat for nationally recognized media markets can still be counted on a single, partially dismembered hand.)

It's an odd and somewhat inspiring little ritual, but in an age of (fingers crossed) black presidents, we can take the scrutiny Perry receives as a small sign of larger things to come.

Black folks are rightly invested in and passionate about the prospect of Obama in the White House, but just as the arrival of Jackie Robinson in the majors signaled the ultimate end of the Negro Leagues, one of the unintended, long-term consequences of an Obama presidency could very well be the extinction of warmly regarded, "private" cultural practices like Perry's.

For both good and ill, we might just be living in the last days of the Chitlin Circuit.

The specific reviews that result from these white field trips to Perry's version of the circuit, like the New York Times' A.O Scott's recent look at "Meet the Browns," tend to be favorable in a backhanded sort of way. Critics have an understandable habit of saving their longest knives for films that deliberately ignore them, but the dominant white take on Perry's "critic-proof" oeuvre is: Yes, the movies themselves are sentimental, hackneyed, broadly acted, at best serviceably written and directed, shrill and lacking in visual interest beyond the curious spectacle of Perry's signature drag act. But, that said, there are plenty of worse ways to spend ninety minutes than in a room full of happy black people.

This read, in part, is just a clear-eyed assessment of market realities -- Perry's films are as wildly popular as they are wildly uneven -- but it's also an astute read of the inherently doubled and universal underpinnings of Perry's particular themes of "moral correction" and economic struggle.

As Scott put it in closing graph of his review, the measure of Perry's films isn't the fact that they "are hardly realistic," or that "they feel corny and hokey at times — O.K., a lot of the time," but that "they make everyone who sees them, white critics included, feel right at home."

Just a few short years ago, though, it was more of an open question as to whether or not whites would feel right at home – or were even particularly welcome - in this sort of venue. The words "chitlin circuit" don't appear in Scott's review, but he evokes that previously closed network of black entertainment with the observation that "Mr. Perry built his audience the hard way and over the long haul, first on the traveling theater circuit catering to African-American audiences."

In a 1997 New Yorker article, The Root.com's own Skip Gates took a more extended look at the chitlin circuit and plays like "My Grandmother Prayed for Me" and "Beauty Shop," arguing that they constituted "a racially sequestered space, where black audiences can laugh, cry and critique uninhibitedly and privately." Instead of focusing on white comfort, though, Gates zeroed in on potential black worry. "The presence of white folks would have engendered a familiar anxiety: Will they think that's what we're really like?"

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