Did they use us just to lose us?
Recent comments from Hollywood mega producers Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels have raised eyebrows about the ways they use gender and class privilege to distance themselves from the very communities from which they come. And they do this all while leveraging patriarchal notions of economic achievement to blame black people for their own lack of access, representation and advancement in the industry.
Tyler Perry has long toed the line between black economic empowerment and outright misogynoir—a term coined by black queer feminist Moya Bailey to describe the ways in which racism and sexism combine to create a unique form of oppression of black women—by writing characters like Madea and the "mad black woman" while employing many previously unknown black writers, actresses and supporting staff who would otherwise remain unknown.
Last August, much to the chagrin of his core audience, Perry debuted a show for TLC called Tyler Perry’s Too Close to Home that featured a predominantly white cast. Since then, the New Orleans native and Atlanta resident has doubled down on the problematic-ness, telling the Associated Press just last week that the blowback he received from his longtime fans was “totally reverse racism because it was coming from African-American people.”
“I don’t know if it was because they thought I should only be giving jobs to black people,” Perry continued. “Well, I think that’s ridiculous. If you look at the hundreds of black people I’ve given jobs to and even the ones I’ve made millionaires, people of color, I just think it’s unfair.”
Let’s be clear: Reverse racism is not a thing. It’s never been a thing and it never will be. Ever. But beyond that deluded notion of structural oppression in the U.S., it is Perry’s sentiment that he has done enough for black people and that many of them only made it in Hollywood because of his graciousness that has alienated so many people from his brand, myself included.
It seems the megastar has forgotten his own experiences of poverty and abuse, experiences that were no doubt rooted in racial and class dis-privilege and exclusion from the white mainstream he so desperately wants a place in now.
Similarly, Lee Daniels, who has produced films like Monster’s Ball (2001) and Precious (2009), both awarded Oscars, Screen Actors Guild and many other awards, has contributed to a broader understanding of blackness—especially where it concerns black women. His hit show Empire continues to push audiences to think differently about same-sex love, racism, sexism and drug addiction, among other things.
However, much of his work has rested on iconic black female characters: Cookie Lyon (played by Taraji P. Henson), Precious (played by Gabby Sidibe) and Leticia Musgrove (played by Halle Berry) are all complex and imperfect characters, each of whom experiences some form of race-based discrimination, drug addiction, criminality or sexual abuse.
Yet, with this cadre of racialized and gendered stories and characters, Daniels continues to deny the existence of racism, just last month telling the cast of The Real that “I wouldn’t be where I was if I embraced racism. If I embraced it, then it became real. And if it became real, I would be an angry black man.”
In the same interview, he explained that he chose to pick a white girl to lead his new show, Star—about the evolution of a girl singing group in the South—because “this white girl is so fabulous that black people will embrace her and white people will embrace her.”
In a sense, Daniels has cultivated his career by centering poverty-porn-like stories of black women, children and families, but now sees his position of privilege in Hollywood as an opportunity to center white femininity. While this choice may seem aesthetic or immaterial, it has concrete economic implications—not to mention the fact that it says something about what types of women Daniels believes are “embrace”-able.
After getting epically dragged on Twitter for these comments, Daniels continued with his word vomit by suggesting that black people should employ the bootstraps method of black success. He told the New York Times on Dec. 28 that people claiming that #OscarsSoWhite is holding back black actors should “Go out and do the work. … Oscars so white! So what? Do your work. Let your legacy speak and stop complaining, man. Are we really in this for the awards?”
Because that’s the issue: Black people just aren’t working hard enough.
In a moment of double-talk, Daniels lashed out at the “complainers,” saying, “These whiny people that think we’re owed something are incomprehensible and reprehensible to me. I don’t expect acknowledgment or acceptance from white America. I’m going to be me.”
It’s odd how he can create a television show with a white female lead he hopes will appeal to both white and black viewers, but he isn’t concerned with being accepted by white people. Confounding, even.
Each of these men, while seemingly committed to the empowerment of black people en masse—especially impoverished and underrepresented black women—shows that all skinfolk ain't kinfolk. They built their careers off the support of working-class black folk and the exploitation of stereotypical black female characters, only to kneel at the altar of whiteness in hopes of gaining even more capital and accolades from the white mainstream.
Perry and Daniels remind us that black men still benefit from patriarchy. And patriarchy has always had economic implications. Once these men bought into the mechanisms of capitalism as a form of deliverance from the blackness and the womanness they actually scorn, they also inherited the classed and gendered hatreds that come along with it.
It remains to be seen how these two highly influential men will address race, gender and class in the future. However, at this point, it might be best for us to expect the worst.