I was always for Tyler Perry in the beginning. The first I had heard of him people were talking about his plays, which people could not stop talking about. He came to Dayton, OH, and I went to go see him in a cramped theater in which I could not move my knees because the room between the rows of seats was just that short. I was pinned in place, with nosebleed seats, but I enjoyed the play. We even felt the presence of the Holy Spirit after those long, drawn out, intense, lyrics were sung, passionate, by a soloist, as is the case in a lot of plays in the chittlin’ circuit.
When I heard that his plays would be turned into movies, I was excited, not because Tyler Perry is Black and this was some renaissance for Black directors; after all I came of age in the era of Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Ice Cube. I was excited because I felt that we would be entering into an era in which Christian films would be accepted in the mainstream. When I actually watched his movies, I felt that there was a dramatization of the pain and hurt that Black women went through that was missing from his plays, if not an outright exploitation of those experiences. Perhaps it was being used as a vehicle to talk to people about God, perhaps. Somehow I missed that message, because I never got that “good feeling” that I got in the plays through his movies.
Tyler Perry, like a lot of Black directors, have very good things to say. He makes us think, he doesn’t focus on the politics of race like a lot of directors from the eighties and nineties do, but he does get you to think about relationships and God, and what Christians have to go through when they are being diminished in the World. Madea, however, is a distraction. When Tyler Perry brings us films without the coonery and buffoonery he is associated with no one shows up at the box office. A few of my co-workers loved I, Alex Cross, but I’m not sure if his core audience loved it or not.
I like to see a good, decent, Black film without being forced to laugh. Something New is a great film that deals with stereotypes about interracial relationships between Black women and White men in a sexy way. Love and Basketball is a great film that deals with sports, relationships, immaturity, and coming of age issues between two childhood friends that fall in love with each other. Robert Townsend is a great director that has movies in which comedy is a trivial, almost insignificant part; a backdrop for great drama. He lost his way after the nineties but some of his films, such as The Five Heartbeats, still have lasting power.
We have had Black directors for longer than I have been alive. Melvin Van Peebles was directing Black films in the early seventies. Critics of Tyler Perry would have loved The Learning Tree, a film directed by Gorden Parks back in 1969. Tyler Perry catches a lot of slack for his films, but he isn’t doing anything that White directors and producers have done in the past. The problem is that when we act up it is buffoonery, coonery, and a host of other psychological issues, and when other races act up it is funny. We are supposed to take ourselves seriously because we were forced to take on those denigrating movie roles before the sixties. This is one of the reasons why Blaxploitation films were as controversial as they were; White people loved it, a few of them directed the films and felt it was the best thing that happened to the film industry. Quentin Tarantino is an obvious fan of the genre. Black Americans were torn; middle class African-Americans did not like the direction that Blaxploitation films were taking, their own ideals were being set aside for what was important to the lower working class, which the films were directed towards.
Tyler Perry’s films fill a void that was left by the conscientious Black directors of the eighties and nineties. In a sense his films fill that a void that was similar to the one that was filled by Blaxploitation films in the seventies. His films also appeal to those that feel that the Black church takes itself too seriously at times, as he delivers a lighter, less authoritarian brand of Christianity. The honest truth about Black filmmaking is that some of the more successful Black filmmakers are directing and producing mainstream “White” films. John Singleton and Spike Lee have not made a truly “Black” film since the nineties. There is no dearth of Black people behind the camera. The status quo for Black films may not have changed, but if you want serious films by Black filmmakers, they are still in production.