Tyler Perry's Conservative Tent Revival

Why the hit producer's narrow evangelism may not be doing black people any good


I accept that Tyler Perry is a pop culture phenomenon. His new film, Meet the Browns, took in more than $20 million its opening weekend and his TV sitcom, House of Payne, won three NAACP image awards. But I find myself wondering how thoughtful folks are supposed to respond to the retrograde spirituality and formulaic humor of his work.

Are Mr. Perry's creations an embarrassment to the race or gospel genius?

Are his cultural contributions ultimately useful for black people or merely cheap products from a salesman who aims to get rich?

In terms of Black Christianity – recently a hot topic of national discussion -- where does Tyler Perry fit?

Without a doubt, Perry's work represents the most prominent expression of black evangelical spirituality in mainstream television and film. As a producer, writer and actor, he has generated an intensely loyal following from a segment of the market that has long been overlooked by Hollywood—black, urban, Christian women. He has crafted a product to meet their needs: an African American festival of laughing, singing and praising the Lord, centered on a stereotypical and unrestrained Southern grandmother (played by Perry in drag) who renders a comical but visceral black rage.

Ten years after his start doing gospel plays in black theatres, Mr. Perry has made $500 million and is the most prominent Black conservative evangelical on earth.

The work itself appeals to the most basic beliefs of fundamentalist black Christianity: Jesus saves, the Bible is inerrant and prayer is a panacea. This simplistic spirituality harkens to the 1870's fundamentalist roots of the evangelical tradition, which were later built upon by black Pentecostals.

That fundamentalist Pentecostal tradition, in which Perry was raised, is conservative, both religiously and politically, meaning that it prioritizes order and celebrates hierarchy; it is suspicious of history, and it accentuates personal responsibility as the key to the good life. Progressive evangelicalism, such as the kind practiced by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in contrast, aims for freedom above order, takes history seriously and engages the structural dimensions of human suffering.

Perry's brand of evangelical entertainment may be unabashedly black, but is also unabashedly conservative. A Tyler Perry product, whether in film or on television, in play or book form, plays directly to his black Christian female audience by building on a simple synthesis of everyday black narratives with recognizable black characters and standard black church rhetoric.

The resolution of each piece of work is grounded in simply having a stronger Christian faith. But that message, while sold as an empowering populist articulation of the black experience, is ultimately not empowering at all. To the contrary, Perry's formula seems to call for more docility from black folk, manipulating them to be more accepting of their social conditions, and encouraging them to turn primarily to God to solve secular problems.