Understanding the Tyler Perry Phenomenon

Published on April 13th, 2010 by Aymar Jean Christian. Filed under Film & Movies, Uncategorized

Watching a Tyler Perry movie is a strange and ecstatic experience. Perry's desire for shenanigans, inanity and heightened emotions always makes for an entertaining evening. But his films are in a strange in-between space: between melodrama and traditional drama, between alternative cinema and Hollywood style, and between black authenticity and pure elitism. Through it all, what vexes film scholars, especially critics, is how style, content, auteurism and culture clash and miss each other in Tyler Perry's films. Understanding Perry now is crucial, especially as he embarks into new cinematic territory, most notably in next year's adaptation of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

Are Tyler Perry's movies "bad," and, whether yes or no, why should we care?

If we believe Metacritic, and I think the site has a lot of merit, the short answer is: yes, Tyler Perry's movies are bad. His average Metacritic score is 46.5, and it's remarkably consistent. Perry's films rest firmly between 40-60, Metacritic's "so-so" range. He never goes above it, and only once has he gone below it. It's clear (white) critics are divided, but mostly confused. Sure, he has perennial advocates, most notably Entertainment Weekly. But more "serious" publications like the New York Times appear startlingly ambivalent. The Times' review of Why Did I Get Married Too claims: "…it’s a Tyler Perry movie, with a little something for everyone, as long as you’re not expecting too much." Neither do critics, it's clear.

Tyler Perry is important; that's obvious. What isn't so obvious is if we should take him seriously. How do we even evaluate Tyler Perry? Who is Tyler Perry?

I'm going to propose four ways to evaluate Perry, ending up on the one I find the most useful: style, theme, marketing and culture. Perry is phenom, and he is neither savior nor demon.

AS AN AUTEUR (Style)

A colleague of mine, keen on film form, basically told me after seeing Perry's most recent flick: why do we put ourselves through this? (paraphrasing). Her basic point was Perry's films are so sloppily written, acted and edited, they don't warrant the audiences they attract, and they're certainly not worth the amount they cost (now well upwards of $10 million each).

She has a point. Why, for $20 million, does Why Did I Get Married Too have so many holes and "flaws" (even though much more expensive films like Avatar too have moments of bad writing)? There are numerous instances. At one point in the film Malik Yoba seriously accuses Janet Jackson of having never cried over the death of their son. In the narrative his accusation is supposed to prove how emotionally deranged she is (which I'll talk about later). Sounds reasonable, right? But wait, the climax of the first installment, Why Did I Get Married, has Janet Jackson doing what? Crying over the death of her son! Has Perry read his own scripts? Perry's narratives inevitably bring up the question "why?" and not in the arty way independent films strive for. In one scene, Jill Scott's husband finally gets a new job but finds out from his coworker that Scott asked her horrible ex-husband to help him get him get work. A coworker tells the Scott's husband the exact home address of her ex, even though, seconds earlier, he could barely remember the ex-husband's name! Huh? Multiple times, characters behave badly without motivation or act irrationally without cause.

That's the narrative. What about the style? What's interesting — and vexing — about Perry is his style lies awkwardly between Hollywood and "alternative" (or independent or even "Third" cinemas), striving for the former and sometimes falling into the latter. There are moments that clearly defy classic form and yet look like Hollywood. The shots dwell too long, cuts come too late, conversation scenes putter about without any direction. In Why Did I Get Married Too an early scene has all the couples arriving at their luxury Bahamas house. Jill Scott and her husband are the first to arrive. Perry has the camera following them, from behind, throughout the house for several minutes, quite a long time, without many cuts and no meaningful dialogue (nothing moves the plot forward). This is a standard big-budget tracking shot — a protagonist enters a new, often luxurious surrounding, and we follow them from behind as they check it out — but told in a way closer to narration in art cinema. In most Hollywood films, this shot is quicker and punctuated by informative dialogue. In Love Actually, when Prime Minister Hugh Grant first enters 10 Downing Street, his chief of staff guides him to his office. As they walk through the halls, we meet new characters and learn new things. Perry just has his characters walk. The director gives us countless "errors" like this, which are very subtle and very much about the current conventions of viewing.

Is Perry, then, a bad filmmaker with a big budget? Not necessarily. I'll soon answer whether Tyler Perry is deliberately messing with Hollywood convention. But first, context!

Perry, more so than any other black filmmaker living today, is the heir to Oscar Micheaux. Around the 1980s and 1990s, Spike Lee was thought to be Micheaux's heir, but Lee's project is very different and his audience is as well. Micheaux worked for over two decades, mostly the twenties and thirties, making films starring and for the black community. Working outside of Hollywood because he had to, Micheaux made films about bourgeois black lifestyles (not exclusively) that, like Perry's, used melodrama to tell narratives about race in America. Contrary D.W. Griffith's classical style, inaugurated by Birth of a Nation, Micheaux saw Hollywood as unwelcoming to non-racist black narratives (which it was). He followed a different set of conventions, intended for different audiences.

Indeed, the first reference to Micheaux I could find in the Times, of his last film The Betrayal, points to similarities in critical reception:

"Mr. Micheaux, unfortunately, does not present his ideas clearly and the picture is often confusing. Some of the most dramatic lines and sequences are so gauche to provoke embarrassed laughter. The Betrayal is further handicapped by sporadically poor photography and consistently  amateurish performances…"

Toward the end of Why Did I Get Married Too, something strange happened in my theater. The audience clearly laughed not at a joke in the film but at the film's writing, something I'd never experienced before. Toward the end — SPOILER ALERT — after Janet Jackson's husband dies, she implores her friends to resolve the problems in their own marriages: infidelity, lack of trust, dishonesty. Within 5 seconds, all three couples kiss and make up, just like that! It was ridiculous, spectacularly bad directing and writing. But the audience wasn't duped.

Is Perry a deliberate challenge to the Hollywood style? I would say yes, but the truth is Perry is more conventional than Micheaux. It's possible to read his films as counter-cinema or a kind of American Third cinema, and I've heard those arguments made. In truth, though, he wants mainstream acceptance. A film like The Family that Preys, with its all-star Kathy Bates-Aflre Woodard duo, only gets made because Perry actually wants to be taken "seriously." His friendship with (and desire to be) Oprah is about more than convenience and money. His films come close to Hollywood, but can't quite make it.

AS A BLACK FILMMAKER (Themes)

Still Perry is one of a handful of black filmmakers — including Antoine Fuqua, John Singleton, Spike Lee and now Lee Daniels — who can actually raise money for wide-release films (and even for some of the above it is hard: Lee went to Italy to finance Miracle at St. Anna).

Within this sphere of films, can we see Perry as making a serious contribution? I'd like to say yes, but then I think about crazy Janet Jackson.

Before I get to Crazy Janet, however, let me first start by giving the pro-Perry case.

Racial representation is complicated and knows few boundaries. Black film studies often concerns itself with  how black people are represented, and using this standard, Perry does make a contribution. Perry, as mentioned, follows in a distinct tradition of melodrama. This is sometimes terribly obvious, as in the trailer for Why Did I Get Married Too, which ends with the theme song from the classic soap opera The Young & the Restless (PS – Isn't painfully clear Tyler Perry should write a soap opera?). Yet it's in the films too: in the exaggerated acting, the sometimes ridiculous plot lines, and clearly delineated villains and heroes. Perry traffics in other traditions as well — the church musical, most visibly — all of which play very well with black audiences. Yet Perry isn't the only one making black melodrama. Dozens of B-movies and straight-to-DVD flicks come out yearly traffic in the same genre. What makes Perry special is his ability to set it well (I'll talk about marketing next), and for that, he deserves credit. His success has reminded Hollywood of the usefulness of the black dollar — much like Do the Right Thing did in 1989.

What about Crazy Janet? Perry's Crazy Janet syndrome became clear to me watching Janet Jackson lose her mind in his latest film. It is indicative of the larger representational complications within his oeuvre. My colleague (the film critic) first keyed me into this issue: Perry's portrayal of black women. She finds in Perry a consistent dismissal of black professional women: they are, to be crude, irrational "bitches" who berate their men. In The Family That Preys, I was surprisingly angered by Sanaa Lathan's character, who desires the "white boss" for seemingly no reason, is irrationally vicious toward her working-class go-getter husband, and even seems to hate her children. Gabrielle Union as high-powered lawyer in Daddy's Little Girls only softens after she is basically willed into submission by, yet again, an earnest working-class man. What makes Why Did I Get Married Too bad melodrama is its unevenness: in each relationship with a working black woman, it's her fault: Janet Jackson is a cold professor who pushes away her loving husband, Sharon Leal is a lawyer who unreasonably cheats on her loving husband, and Tasha Smith is a loud-mouthed cynic who berates her loving husband! Only Jill Scott, who plots behind her loving husband's back, is really noble, and she chooses not to work (even as their family needs the money)! There are counter-examples, of course, but a trend emerges.

Perry's women problem is only one of his many issues. There is, for sure, his gay problem. Why Did I Get Married Too has a scene where Janet Jackson tries to embarrass her husband at work by bringing him a fake-birthday cake with a dancing "queen" on top of it, in order to undercut his masculinity. Stereotypical gays show up in the first scenes of the first installment too. Most of his other films are characterized by an unsurprising blindness to the diversity within the black community. Both his blindness to and the curious inclusion of gays in his films are to me moments when the suppression of his own (homo)sexuality surfaces, as it does occasionally, and subtly, in his interviews.

I've said it many times: I'm not the representation police, and I'm not here to police black images. There's a very consistent history in black film of creating difficult and transgressive images, and while I'm not putting Perry in the tradition of Melvin Van Peebles and John Singleton, I'm suggesting perhaps we might think of him that way.

Perry's films are primarily ways to talk about black progress and authenticity in a "post-racial" world, and they absorb all the baggage involved in that project. They are moral tales about maintaining traditional family structures (including, usually, men at the head), the importance of the church and the elders, even at the exclusion of gays — and not always, though sometimes, of others: like loose and lost women, drug users, etc.

All of this, however, is not terribly interesting. It's not something we haven't seen before, and it may, in fact, be behind the times. So how does he sell it?

AS AN ENTREPRENEUR (Marketing)

Spike Lee said it, at a non-publicized appearance here at Penn, but he wasn't the only one: asked what he thinks of Tyler Perry, he replied, in so many words, "he's a good businessman."

This is meant as a dig, in case you missed the snark screaming from the statement above.

Tyler Perry's journey to mainstream success, told in the media as a rags-to-riches story, starts with the careful cultivation of an audience of churchgoers on the chitlin circuit in the Southeast and North. When he searched for money from the major studios in 2004 to make Diary of a Mad Black Woman, he was denied by white studio executives. Perry markets himself as a misunderstood outsider, disliked by critics (among whom there are virtually no black women, his target audience) and the black elite (who, embodied by Spike Lee, see his work as cooning). The divide is rhetorical, since he has critical fans and more than a few advocates in the black bourgeois.

"My entire effort has been grass roots," Perry once told the AP. "The base, the hardworking people who are just really, really good people who can relate to (Madea). The highbrow? They don't get it."

Perry's marketing ideology brings us back to Micheaux, who, like Perry, created a studio outside Hollywood and small market as well, employing black Americans in an industry that, statistically speaking, excludes them, both behind and in front of the camera, below and above the line.

Perry, then, deserves credit for reviving the Micheaux model, and, at times, the Micheaux politics.

Why is Perry successful? Certainly his "working class" politics is part of the equation, but it isn't the whole truth. Perry's films are as much about the fantasy of black privilege which is nonetheless "real" (a more believable Best Man) than about "hardworking people." Moviegoers can expect authenticity from a Perry film, alongside the drama, which offers an important antidote to the otherwise "empty" black images in mainstream film: the likes of Halle Berry and Will Smith, marketed as much to whites as black people.

It's no wonder media stories about Perry frame his as more of a businessman than an artist, and it's not only because his films have grossed (staggeringly) nearly half a billion dollars in just five years (not even counting the TV shows). In his marketing persona Perry finds redemption, a clean David-and-Goliath narrative worthy in itself.

While the "auteur-as-marketer" label is an appropriate frame for evaluating Tyler Perry, I think it misses the aforementioned stylistic slippages and representational anomalies: it misses the peculiar experience of watching a Tyler Perry film.

AS A PHENOMENON (Culture): Redeeming Mr. Perry

What Tyler Perry represents is a phenomenon in a specific moment in black history: an auteur-entrepreneur making a cinematic contribution revealing the problems in our media landscape and our unmet cinematic desires. Perry, at his core, shows us what our current media system is lacking and where black cultural politics lie today.

Hollywood's Failure to Make and Market

Hollywood forever seems to embrace/deny the black market. There are times (the early 90s) when they do, and times (the 2000s) when they don't. Perry reminded Hollywood to pay attention, a claim he often makes himself. That Perry's movies are "bad" only suggests the demand for quality black cinema. A film like Death at a Funeral is Hollywood's attempt to address the gap. When Perry stops influencing Hollywood, he will lose his cultural power. He explicitly wants to influence Hollywood.

The Communal Nature of the Theater Experience

I will make the case that Tyler Perry's films need to be seen with people, and preferably, in the theater. A lot of films are like this, especially ones marketed to minority communities and women. Perry reminds us how much call-and-response is involved in movie-watching. Once again, he isn't the first. Stephanie Dunn, in her book Baad Bitches and Sassy Supermamas, reminds us of the communal experience of watching blaxploitation films in the 1970s. If Perry loses this cultural aspect of his films, he may jeopardize his raison d'etre.

The Peculiar and Particular Two-ness of Post-Racial America

The stylistic oddities in Tyler Perry films, the very reason critics can't make heads-or-tails of them, are significant. They reveal, I argue, a 21st century form of Micheaux's "two-ness," as J. Ronald Green argues descends from DuBois, the curious case of being black and American. It is curious to be black and American today: some representations are embraced by the mainstream, and others are specifically denied. Perry's stylistic dance with Hollywood — his embrace of fantasy but denial of classical continuity — embodies this tension.

The Persistent Allure of Authenticity

Watching the premiere of Treme, I was reminded, as I am regularly, of the persistent appeal of authenticity. In a world with so many identities in the media, it is comforting to see something you know you'll understand and relate to. Authenticity in media is always a construction, and usually a pretty boring one, but its nonetheless alluring and particular instantiations — how popular authentic images look in specific times and places — are worthy of further investigation.

If ever Tyler Perry ceases to engage these ideas, he will cease to be Tyler Perry. Perry's value is as a site with which to view these issues, a person who, more than anyone else, produces/directs/writes/acts in ways that mobilize anxieties about media and culture today.

Tyler Perry is at the height of his media power. His ability to round up an incredible cast for For Colored Girls — Anika Noni Rose, Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Mariah Carey, Kerry Washington, Loretta Devine, Phylicia Rashad and Macy Gray (whew!) — only confirms him as the center, if there is one, of black culture. If he understands his role in our mediascape, it is a position he'll retain. Until, of course, the culture changes, as it inevitably will.

About

Aymar Jean Christian researches visual culture -- including web series, television, and film -- at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been published in Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He runs the Film@Perelman program and lectures on film at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For information, visit http://ajchristian.org.

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