It's Time to Cut Tyler Perry Some Slack

Enough with the talk about Tyler Perry perpetuating racial stereotypes. How is what he's doing any different from the much loved Sanford and Son? There's a reason the man sells out at the box office. It's called commercial entertainment.

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Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards

 

I just don't get all the hating on Tyler Perry.

When the NAACP Image Awards last week for both television and film can go to the work of the same man (for House of Payne and For Colored Girls), it looks like progress to me. OK, House of Payne isn't exactly Ibsen, but for there to have been a major-release cinematic version of Ntozake Shange's majestically unclassifiable play at all still reminds me that we live in fascinating times.

Yet there persists an idea that Perry is to be reviled for stereotyping black people, for "misrepresenting" the black experience. Even with For Colored Girls, many distrusted his streamlining the play and adding some of his own touches for cinema audiences.

As always, it's one thing to criticize, and another to suggest an alternative. Some propose that the former is incomplete without the latter. When applied too stringently, that requirement can become a debate-team trick rather than a response. But there is room for it here.

If it isn't good enough that Perry's accessible, slightly corny, pretty funny entertainments give black stage, television and film actors work year after year and make life a little easier for black people across this great nation, then what should he be doing instead that would be worth his being unknown and poor? I'm not sure the people dissing Perry have an answer to that question -- or at least not a realistic one.

For one, we're talking about commercial entertainment. To survive, it has to be seen by millions. August Wilson, Suzan Lori-Parks and Lynn Nottage can write on a higher level, dealing with high-flying allusions and even leaving most viewers wondering what it all meant, as was typical of Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Parks' Topdog/Underdog. No one expects straight plays to make anyone rich, except very occasionally.

If Perry's plays, films and television shows all aimed for this level, they wouldn't be nationally popular. Upon which he would have about as much national notoriety as, say, brilliant black playwrights Tarell Alvin McRaney and Nathan Louis Jackson do now. The word would be, as it was pre-Perry, that there's no black producer who can green-light a film.

Now and then, magic happens even in the commercial realm, of course. The Cosby Show comes to mind. But what America are we imagining where all, or even most, black television or film would be of that sober tone? There are always some shows and movies like this to savor: currently, Treme, while Soul Food quietly occupied the niche for a time. But is anyone sincere in wishing that Perry would produce only work like this, watching most of the attempts go down the tubes after a few months? Filmwise, do we really wish on him a string of flops like Beloved or only succès d'estimes like I'll Fly Away?

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