Tyler Perry sounded like he was channeling Madea herself last week when the usually reserved filmmaker told reporters that his fellow director — and critic — Spike Lee "can go right to hell, and all y'all can print that!" He got his wish — the quote has been printed worldwide.
No stranger to feuds, Spike Lee has publicly challenged 50 Cent and Clint Eastwood, and has been known to offer some biting commentary on white directors who have tackled films about black life, such as Steven Spielberg's Amistad. In 2009, the two-time Oscar nominee said in an interview with Ed Gordon, "When I watch the games on TNT, I see these two ads for these two shows and I am scratching my head. We got a black president and we going back to Mantan Moreland and Sleep 'n' Eat?" To be fair, Lee didn't specifically name Perry's two TBS sitcoms, Meet the Browns and House of Payne, but the point seemed obvious. And Perry clearly took it personally.
A lot of the negative talk surrounding the master of Madea has to do with the portrayal of blacks in his work and his perceived lack of artistic talent — see the mixed reviews for For Colored Girls — and Perry made it clear in his rant that it was not only unfair but a uniquely black thing for African Americans to criticize one another for their creative work. At his press conference, he compared himself to Zora Neale Hurston, whose writing was panned by some of her black peers. "I've never seen Italian people attack The Sopranos," he said. "It's always black people, and this is something I cannot undo."
I beg to differ. Italian-American organizations were enraged at The Sopranos, and they are currently on a rampage against the less-than-flattering reality shows Mob Wives and Jersey Shore. Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, a film about the holocaust, was chopped up by other filmmakers, such as the late Stanley Kubrick (The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut), and even a holocaust survivor, Imre Kertész, was unhappy with the movie. Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone have had a long-standing feud. What Perry experiences is nothing new; nor is it unique to the black community.
Nevertheless, since Perry's rise to fame with his up-in-drag hootenannies, there seems to have been an unspoken rule that black folks can't criticize him. When a small few have offered critiques (Idris Elba, Malcolm D. Lee, Aaron McGruder), suddenly they are accused of having a "crabs in a barrel" mentality and not acknowledging Perry's business acumen. But his moneymaking skills cannot be denied — Madea's Big Happy Family made $25 million in its opening weekend, better than all of Lee's opening weekends, with the exception of 2006's Inside Man.
Indeed, Lee has stressed that he has no feud with Perry, and in 2010 he posted the original transcript of the 2009 Ed Gordon interview on his website. One quote that is always ignored: "The man has a huge audience. Tyler's very smart with what's he done. He started off with these plays. Church buses would pull up, packed, and he's parlayed it. He's bought his own jet. If you can buy a jet, you got money."
In Lee's heyday, he was blasted by both blacks and whites. He has been labeled racist, misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic. Like Perry, Lee is not flawless. One might argue that Lee's treatment of women in his movies (He Got Game, Girl 6) is just as offensive as a modern-day minstrel show, which many of Perry's detractors call the Madea movies. Neither of them is above this sort of criticism — whether or not it's coming from their own race.
If the conversation is about content, Lee at his worst is better than Perry at his best. But Perry is banking too many millions to have a tantrum over Lee. Let Mookie vent if he sees cinematic history repeating itself with modern-day minstrelsy; there is room for both of them (and more — see Ava DuVernay's I Will Follow if you're in the mood for an excellent black film).
Lee, an NYU film school graduate, knows his craft, has paid his dues and clearly has a respect for black cinema. And Perry will continue to make the films he desires. Let's just hope that he has no plans to adapt Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Black Boy by Richard Wright or, my worst fear, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. After For Colored Girls, he should stick with Madea and steer clear of the classics.