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?
Take Sanford and Son, which had a Perry-esque feel. It lives fondly in our memories because we think of it as part of another time. However, by the '70s, there were already plenty of people calling for more "realistic" depictions of blacks on television and reviling how there were so few besides Roots.
But who among us would rather have had Sanford and Son be about a low-key father-son pair, portrayed with vivid ambiguity, living in a community that displayed an awesome diversity of black figures instead of Grady and Bubba — with Fred and Aunt Esther sparring warmly only now and then, like the Huxtables, and Esther played probably by Theresa Merritt or Virginia Capers instead of the randy LaWanda Page?
I, who have every episode of the show on DVD in my living room, would not have preferred this — and I venture that such a show would not have been embraced by black America or anybody else. The same argument applies to the jollity of The House of Payne — the de-Perryfied version would have lasted barely a season.
The whole idea of nailing every second thing a black actor does as a "stereotype" starts as an intelligent form of analysis, but it can devolve into an unwitting kind of dismissal of harmless human nature. Legions of black people love the Madea plays, the movies based on them and the goofy television shows. All of it is one part Fred and Esther and one part mother wit. Those on the sidelines waiting for Perry to become another Spike Lee seem to think that Perry is hurting black people in some way.
But say that Perry is talking down to black people, and then say why we think the archetypal — i.e., stereotypic — characters in West Indian and African folk tales, like Anancy the spider, are so marvelous. One man's Anancy is another man's Aunt Esther. Which human beings don't enjoy types as part of their entertainment? White people, it would appear from mainstream movies and TV, like themselves some stereotypes, too.
It's as if people think that Perry is misusing his influence in some way, depriving black people of something that would help make their lives better. But what if Perry's work makes their lives better? And who is anyone to tell them it's wrong?
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.