There was a time when I just didn't get Mary J. Blige. Scroll back a decade and some change, and there you'll find me, turning up my nose at "Real Love" and cringing at the flat notes in her cover of Rufus' "Sweet Thing." (The sacrilege!) Until I saw her in concert, took in the sisters rushing the stage, crying and singing along, communing with a modern day blues woman. And I got it. I got her. I never listened to her the same way again.
Which is kinda, sorta, how I'm slowly — ever so slowly — starting to feel about Tyler Perry.
Now don't get me wrong. I still think he needs to keep his mitts off of For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf. But watching his latest effort, Why Did I Get Married, Too?-and checking out the audience reaction—got me re-thinking my aversion to his work.
I started thinking about how in the ‘90s, the late, great August Wilson denounced what he saw as the cultural imperialism of white theater and attempts to integrate black theatrical folks into the mainstream. Far better, Wilson said, for blacks to create their own, self-contained theatrical world. "We cannot allow others to have authority over our cultural and spiritual products," he declared at a theater symposium at Princeton University. "We want you to see us. We are black and beautiful. We have an honorable history in the world of men… We do not need colorblind casting; we need some theaters to develop our playwrights."
As The Root's Skip Gates noted in 1997 in his seminal New Yorker piece, the theatrical Chitlin' Circuit was such a place, a "black theatre for the masses." This was true in the early part of the 20th century, the vaudeville days when colored people didn't have a choice; this was also true in the ‘90s, when they did. All-black audiences around the country packed theaters to take in shows like Shelly Garrett's "Beauty Shop" and "Barber Shop." (Shows that, it must be noted, raked in more at the box office in a week than most Broadway musicals.) We're talking call-and-response theater, interactive drama replete with audience members running out in the aisles and declaring, Oh-no-she-didn't! Of course, this wasn't theater that was bound to win points among the taste-making Talented 10th, You could go on and on about the great tension between art and commerce, but it is what it is: The Chitlin Circuit met a need. A deep need.
Which leads me to my aha-moment with Tyler Perry.
As a critic-or hell, even just as someone who loves movies-I've got issues with Tyler Perry the filmmaker. His writing/directing skills leave much to be desired: He's all ham-handed cinematography, predictable plot points and over-the-top dialogue. Yes, he piles drama on top of melodrama, complete with golf-club wielding women and men in drag. Is it farce? Or earnestly straight forward? Maybe a little of both. As we've observed here on The Root, Perry's not one for nuance, subtlety or shades of grey. But clearly, he touches his viewers on a deep, cellular level. Witness the lines wrapped around the block to see Why Did I Get Married, Too? and the boffo box office numbers.
Essentially, his movies are morality plays, consumed with exploring sin and moral failings. There's no problem that can't be solved without Jesus - and a little intervention from Madea, Tyler's big breasted, battle-ax of an alter ego. We're living in dangerous times, stumbling through a crazy economy, bitter political partisanship, Tea Baggers shouting the N-word and terrorists, both homegrown and outsourced, posing problems. There is something both soothing and cathartic about his strict, black/white, Good vs. Evil universe, where confession + redemption always = a happy ending. There is reassurance in that. And there is power in films that are For Us, By Us.
What's not so reassuring, though, watching Why Did I Get Married, Too?, is Perry's complicated creative relationship with women. (The Root requested an interview with Perry, but a publicist said that he is not doing any press.) On the one hand, these days, he's probably the biggest employer of African-American actresses. (And he, along with Oprah Winfrey, produced Precious: Based On The Novel By Sapphire.) To bad he doesn't give them better roles: his women are all over-the-top harridans, pathologically jealous Sapphires or deceptive and devious Jezebels. Or they've bordering on sainthood, like Jill Scott's Sheila. (Tyler seems to have particular venom for the professional black woman-she's almost always a manipulative she-devil who finds her comeuppance from the good, blue collar brother.) The men function as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action ("Don't you know all women are crazy.") while the women wild out.
Not that's likely to change any time soon. Tyler's got his formula and he's sticking to it. But I've come to the conclusion that the problem isn't that there is a Tyler Perry out there making movies. It's that there aren't enough cinematic August Wilsons. Or Suzan Lori Parks. Or Lynn Nottages.
Give me a healthy dose of smart, insightful, highbrow black creativity, and I can laugh right along with everybody else on the lowbrow stuff and its folk-wisdom truths. The problem is when there's too much low brow, I begin to resent it. White Hollywood leaves me out. Wit them, I don't feel seen or represented. With Tyler Perry, I-we-are indeed represented. And I give him props for that. I just wish that, in his representation of us, we weren't so continuously and cartoonishly exaggerated.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter