I accept that Tyler Perry is a pop culture phenomenon. His new film, Meet the Browns, took in more than $20 million its opening weekend and his TV sitcom, House of Payne, won three NAACP image awards. But I find myself wondering how thoughtful folks are supposed to respond to the retrograde spirituality and formulaic humor of his work.
Are Mr. Perry's creations an embarrassment to the race or gospel genius?
Are his cultural contributions ultimately useful for black people or merely cheap products from a salesman who aims to get rich?
In terms of Black Christianity – recently a hot topic of national discussion — where does Tyler Perry fit?
Without a doubt, Perry's work represents the most prominent expression of black evangelical spirituality in mainstream television and film. As a producer, writer and actor, he has generated an intensely loyal following from a segment of the market that has long been overlooked by Hollywood—black, urban, Christian women. He has crafted a product to meet their needs: an African American festival of laughing, singing and praising the Lord, centered on a stereotypical and unrestrained Southern grandmother (played by Perry in drag) who renders a comical but visceral black rage.
Ten years after his start doing gospel plays in black theatres, Mr. Perry has made $500 million and is the most prominent Black conservative evangelical on earth.
The work itself appeals to the most basic beliefs of fundamentalist black Christianity: Jesus saves, the Bible is inerrant and prayer is a panacea. This simplistic spirituality harkens to the 1870's fundamentalist roots of the evangelical tradition, which were later built upon by black Pentecostals.
That fundamentalist Pentecostal tradition, in which Perry was raised, is conservative, both religiously and politically, meaning that it prioritizes order and celebrates hierarchy; it is suspicious of history, and it accentuates personal responsibility as the key to the good life. Progressive evangelicalism, such as the kind practiced by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in contrast, aims for freedom above order, takes history seriously and engages the structural dimensions of human suffering.
Perry's brand of evangelical entertainment may be unabashedly black, but is also unabashedly conservative. A Tyler Perry product, whether in film or on television, in play or book form, plays directly to his black Christian female audience by building on a simple synthesis of everyday black narratives with recognizable black characters and standard black church rhetoric.
The resolution of each piece of work is grounded in simply having a stronger Christian faith. But that message, while sold as an empowering populist articulation of the black experience, is ultimately not empowering at all. To the contrary, Perry's formula seems to call for more docility from black folk, manipulating them to be more accepting of their social conditions, and encouraging them to turn primarily to God to solve secular problems.
To address entrenched social misery, lack of opportunity, economic inequality, poor schooling and housing discrimination, Perry's work trumpets prayer. For more personal and familial struggles such as drug abuse, infidelity and child abuse, his work similarly prescribes redemption through a stronger, deeper and more committed Christian faith. Even his core audience is acutely aware that his work is creatively limited, and yet they are drawn to it because it presents them with a world that is highly recognizable—in language, tone and theme.
So despite the fact that the work is predictable, syrupy, narrowly evangelical and flat-footed, Perry has a loyal audience. Whether through a crack-addict who abandoned her family only to finally find wholeness through marriage at the end of Diary of a Mad Black Woman; or through a black woman recovering from sexual abuse ultimately forgiving her blameworthy mother in Madea's Family Reunion, the message is consistent: "Sisters, a stronger faith in Jesus can change your life" (wait till you see Meet The Browns).
On one level, it is not difficult to see why the pandering is appealing. Black women are consistently un-affirmed in American culture. Perry, on the other hand, seems to be really tuned in to the psycho-emotional needs and traumas of black women - he even dresses like one! And with all of life's intractable difficulties, why shouldn't people be able to embrace the idea of Christian redemption, happy endings and easy laughs?
But it is important to question the lasting messages and effects of these dramas. Christianity requires that one live constantly outside one's comfort zone, against mainstream cultural values, and for something greater than themselves. Jesus' core teachings were about a love ethic that prioritized the poor and downtrodden and venerated the prophetic fight for political and social justice in the name of God.
Suggesting, as conservative evangelicals often do, that if we merely have stronger faith, oppression will disappear is a profoundly irresponsible rhetorical strategy that has, as of yet, resulted in no measurable change to black social struggles.
Perry has fallen short of the Christian imperative for a loving justice. He has yet to explore the true evils of patriarchy and structural oppression, and he has yet to present a substantive exploration of the complexity of black womanhood.
Perry could very easily address issues of a living wage, health care or black-on-black violence by examining the structural conditions that under gird these features of daily life. Since he clearly has a gift for comedy, it is quite possible that he could even wrestle with these more broadly contextualized themes while remaining funny. This would be a justice crusade in the most Christian sense. Given his track record, however, the chances for this true leap of faith seem slim.
Box office triumphs aside, Perry longs for acceptance from Hollywood. But even as the titans of the entertainment industry acknowledge his success, as long he continues to preach his narrow brand of conservative evangelicalism, they will likely hold him at arm's length. Perhaps Hollywood is, in this regard, is being more responsible to black people than Tyler Perry.
Andre C. Willis is an assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale Divinity School.