Tyler Perry’s brand of hyperbolic “church humor” and F. Gary Gray’s hit film Straight Outta Compton, a biopic of the West Coast rap group N.W.A, might seem worlds apart. But for me, they are two sides of the same coin. I’m disappointed in myself that it took so long to figure that out.
I was raised by a single mother in Oakland, Calif., in the late 1980s and ’90s, at the height of N.W.A’s famed career. To my mother’s credit, she worked tirelessly to protect me from harmful messages in popular culture throughout my adolescence. Rap and hip-hop pioneers were never spinning in my household. I didn’t know the greats like Run-DMC or Public Enemy. Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube were completely unfamiliar to me until well into junior high school.
Rather, I grew up in black church culture, a culture supposedly antithetical to the “misogynoir” and violence of rap and hip-hop. It was meant to be different, less “worldly.”
Most days were dedicated to at least one church-related service. Bible study, choir rehearsal, youth fellowship and other themed events consumed my young life. Although church felt ubiquitous to me, I rarely saw reflections of my church family in mainstream media. That was, until Tyler Perry’s iconic gray-haired grandma, Madea, emerged during my high school years.
When Perry’s plays on the contemporary chitlin circuit began capitalizing on, and in many ways exploiting, black church culture, I felt deeply connected to the narratives. I was almost thirsty for them.
Madea—played by Perry himself—was a large-bosomed, spry pseudo-Christian. She never left her revolver at home; nor was she ever “scurred.” Her broken recitations of Bible verses evoked uproarious laughter in anyone who knew what Scripture really said. She was the Sunday school teacher who loved you but would take you to the bathroom for a whoopin’. Madea and her various extended-family members were familiar, much more so than Dr. Dre or Eazy-E ever were.
Without fail, Perry’s productions featured at least one black woman whose self-worth was wrapped up in the affections of a hardworking, honest black man. In Madea’s Big Happy Family, black female characters were literal stereotypes. From the one-lined “baby mama” to the “angry for no apparent reason” older sister, black women in the film existed strictly in a single dimension.
Perhaps the most egregious example of Perry’s shallow development and limiting characterization of black women in film happened in 2013 with Temptation. The main character, Judith, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, was a trifecta of broken black woman: 1) She was unable to see her beauty until a predatory (and handsome) black male made sexual advances toward her; 2) She mistreated her hardworking black husband by cheating on him; and 3) She ended up alone and shamed for all the mistakes she made while under the influence of an abusive lover.
By the time The Single Moms Club came out in 2014, I was fatigued from the repeated mischaracterizations of black women in Perry’s productions but still felt a certain loyalty to the brand. While I stopped paying for his films, I said things like, “He has done so much to create jobs in the South,” and “He is changing the game in black entertainment.” Failing to situate his culturally comedic work in opposition to my developing ideological commitments, I contradicted my own stances against misogynoir and sexism for the sake of familiarity.
In contrast, what I knew from lyrics encouraging child rape and the sexual exploitation of black women was enough to turn my stomach and repel me from N.W.A’s brand altogether. When I learned of Dr. Dre’s history of violence against black women, like Dee Barnes and Michel’le, it took little convincing for me to permanently recuse myself from ever consuming any of his work or products. When news about Straight Outta Compton broke, I never intended to spend a dime on it. I even planned not to watch the film for free. My disgust toward those who supported the film, especially black women, left me disillusioned, even surprised.
A recent tweet from director Ava DuVernay after she watched Gray’s film perfectly captures how black female fans of groups like N.W.A often find themselves in a conundrum of cultural affiliation.
Having struggled with separating my longtime loyalty to Perry’s films into two distinct frames, one ideological and the other cultural, I was rattled by DuVernay’s astute perceptions.
My sensitivities to the cultural phenomenon of Perry’s plays let me excuse the mass consumption of dangerous depictions of black women and families when those plays became box-office hits. Meanwhile, my visceral hatred for the messages produced and mass-marketed by groups like N.W.A, and my social distance from their cultural anchors, made it easy for me to rebuke Straight Outta Compton entirely.
My cultural affinity for representations of the black church in mainstream media is of no greater merit than that of individuals who look back on Los Angeles culture of the late ’80s and early ’90s with nostalgia and revelry. Although Perry clearly doesn’t have the violent roots and explicit messages of rape, misogynoir and hatred toward black women in his productions or past, his work does reinforce gender hierarchies that are harmful toward black women at large. In the end, I can’t, in good conscience, support Tyler Perry films if I don’t support films like Straight Outta Compton.
No matter how familiar these productions may be, I won’t be selling out any part of me for a laugh or a cry. Rather than accept either set of messages or depictions wholesale, I will continue to thoughtfully critique portrayals of black folks in mainstream media until both my ideological and cultural commitments are in firm alignment.