Not Safe for White People
Tyler Perry, Rev. Wright and the end of the chitlin circuit.
Tyler Perry, Rev. Wright and the end of the chitlin circuit.
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?"
He went on to say that if the private happenings of the chitlin circuit were to be made public, a kind of uncomfortable hell would break loose for some black folks. "You don't want white people to see this kind of spectacle, you want them to see the noble dramas of August Wilson, where the injuries and injustices perpetrated by the white man are never far from our consciousness … By contrast, these chitlin circuit plays carry an invisible racial warning sticker: For domestic consumption only—export strictly prohibited."
Take it as sign of the changes wrought by the intervening 11 years since Gates' article that white people seeing "this kind of spectacle" has gone from ominous danger to standard mass media operating procedure. Whether you're talking Meet the Browns, Flavor of Love, ghetto lit, or a Jeremiah Wright sermon, ubiquitous viral media means that America's "racially sequestered" spaces come fewer and farther between, and a whole world of material previously deemed, by some, NSFW (not safe for whites) is now just a YouTube search away.
(As an NSFW aside, those of you who are grown adults and surfing from home should look up Atlanta public access mini-celebrity Alexyss K. Tylor. There is a whole sub-genre of forced "reaction" videos on YouTube where someone tricks an unsuspecting victim into watching a particularly outrageous clip and records the results; me I would pay money to watch white folks watch Tylor's various magna operas.)
Indeed, if there's a patron saint, god or loa of accidental racial irony, he or she is likely having a good chuckle at the fact that Barack Obama's sweeping vision of transformed American race relations debuted a mere week before Perry's Meet the Browns.
Perry doesn't make an appearance in what's now shorthanded as the "Race Speech," but there is a sense in which the candidate's attempt to parse exactly what he liked and disliked about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church and sermonizing was country kin to the work critics like Scott undertake when explaining artifacts like Meet the Browns to white audiences. The subject matter in both instances is, of course, apples and oranges.
Obama's speech was about racial history, bare-knuckled primary politics, and religious rhetoric, whereas a Tyler Perry review most often alights on the various the implications of black dudes wearing dresses. (Less so this time around with the Angela Basset-fronted "Browns.")
But the Race Speech and a careful Perry review are in their own ways about the perils and challenges presented by white eavesdropping on black conversations. With the wide distribution of Wright's sermons, some white audiences previously unexposed to his form of black rhetoric found themselves at turns shocked, confused and worried, which is to say, in need of a handy primer.
And after having avoided exactly this kind of work throughout his campaign, Barack Obama – likely Democratic presidential nominee, change agent, and once in a lifetime political phenomenon - found himself forced by political expediency into that oldest of roles for black folks in the public eye: reluctant native informant and translator.
His response wasn't exactly a Tyler Perry review, but it was close: There was a time and a place for Rev. Wright's comments and I'd like to explain those times and places to you. I don't live in either anymore, but I also won't completely trash them, because they're a part of who I am and at various points they have given me comfort.
As the hedge-like walls around various closed black networks whether Wright's or Perry's - become increasingly open to white scrutiny, these debates will likely become less about black privacy, and start to focus instead on competing assessments of the specific doings once hidden behind those walls.
Just as the firestorm over Wright immediately moved from the question of what Obama personally heard and when, to whether or not Wright's underlying points had any larger historical merit, the longer term debate about cultural artifacts like Meet the Browns will inevitably shift.
In ten or twenty years, in a world where (maybe) black people win the occasional presidency and Oscar, our appreciation for Perry's broad exercises in comedic community service could easily wane. Assessing long term cultural merit is a mug's game, and, personally, I'd argue there's more than a little artistry involved in being able to simultaneously cheer a room full of hypothetical black every-people and critics from the New York Times.
But there's also a sense in which the nostalgic, proprietary moral aura of the chitlin circuit is what keeps Tyler Perry from being just another popular but middling black comedian; a Wayans Brother, for example, whose executive producer happens to be his lord and savior Jesus Christ.
In a world of Richard Pryors, Dave Chappelles, and even Eddie Murphys, the thing that keeps a Tyler Perry in the conversation is his admirable and resolute dedication to remaining a certain kind of "ours." This, as arguably more talented black performers venture out into the world and try their hand at frying different and bigger fish/intestines.
We love Perry now, but we'd do well to remember that we also used to love another Perry - Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. He was the greatest black comedic actor of his day, but outside of the memories of a few aficionados and critical subversives, that earlier Perry's stage name is now generally among the worst slurs you can throw at a black performer or professional: Stepin' Fetchit.
Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles-based writer.