After talking to a friend about Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself, I realized that his very presence in the film industry continues to create a stark cultural divide. Many on the ground enjoy watching his films and television shows; others recoil, perplexed at how these characters and stories make millions, while other filmmakers continue to struggle. Cinema vanguards like Haile Gerima, for instance, are most often seen on the international film circuit, rarely penetrating U.S. distribution channels, while the most prolific and arguably most gifted black filmmaker, Spike Lee, scarcely garners theatrical releases for his films.
How is it that Perry—an actor, writer, director and yes, studio owner—has become the face of black filmmaking? For now, I choose not to delve into Perry’s work—the stories, characterizations and the cultural and political subtext that they bring to the surface. I simply argue that those of us whose cultural vision does not neatly align with Perry’s might still be able to learn a thing or two.
Simply, you “can’t knock the hustle.” Like many of us who dare to chart a difficult course, Perry is a visionary who understands more than we know, and he will continue to grow in ways that will make many of his critics reconsider their harsh comments. He is learning how to craft films and has his sights on more than the next Madea flick. Perry and Oprah Winfrey co-executive produced the latest work of provocative and gifted director Lee Daniels, whose upcoming film, Precious, will be released this fall. Perry has amassed a fortune, and he will use it to open more doors to other voices and directors, hopefully bringing his audiences to the other side to explore other kinds of cinema that they may not have considered viewing.
As a burgeoning writer, producer and scholar, I am influenced by the likes of Lee and Gerima, whose work presses into the twin spheres of aesthetics and meaning, and inspires critical dialogue about the work and its relationship to our social landscape. And I will admit that I turn up my nose at the thought of Tyler Perry’s brand of entertainment hitting the big screen. It was only last year that I made my first trek to see a Tyler Perry movie, Madea Goes to Jail, in a theater. By now, most of us are aware of the stalwart criticisms—the low production values, predictable storylines and characters, and the lack of attention paid to the nuances of filmmaking. While his work differs from that of the black cinematic masters, over time I have realized that Perry and his work are far more significant than many of us have realized.
Perry has never claimed to be a brilliant filmmaker. He has made black audiences—or at least a portion of them—bankable. He has mastered what I’ll call “the Spike Lee effect”—employing hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, many of whom would not have been able to get jobs in the film industry. But we have often overlooked his sheer brilliance, courage and resilience. Perry’s personal story is one of the most amazing you’ll ever hear, but his business acumen is equally as compelling. For students of media industries, he is the ultimate case study. He has created a media empire (yes, empire) in fewer years than it took Oprah Winfrey, and his business prowess should be studied, not belittled.
Many intellectuals and cultural critics have challenged his work and even his right to make it, yet offer little by way of salient critiques. Perhaps his work, in their eyes, is not worthy of analytical discussion. As viewers and cultural critics, we must sharpen our own critical chops, yet resist the need to simply cut the work down. In the academic sphere, his name is a bad word, synonymous perhaps with chitlin’ circuit entertainment. Yet so much of what black popular culture has produced has often been relegated to the realm of “low culture” and marginalized, only to be reclaimed when it can serve our own political ends.
To those who may not value the work, I challenge you to watch as he moves beyond Madea, helping to make black entertainment and black producers more viable. Many of us are talking about it, but Tyler Perry is doing it. And if you’re nice, maybe he’ll finance one of your projects.
Michele Prettyman Beverly is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication’s Moving Image Studies Program at Georgia State University in Atlanta.