Hilarity, culture war ensue over Tyler Perry

Benjamin Svetkey, Margeau Watson and Alynda Wheat have written an impressive feature story for the March 20 Entertainment Weekly on what the magazine calls "black America's secret culture war" surrounding playwright and filmmaker Tyler Perry.

Initially it sounds as though the conflicts are strictly about, in the words of the reporters, "regressive, down-market archteyptes": "In many of his films there's a junkie prostitute, a malaprop-dropping uncle, and Madea, a tough-talking grandma the size of a linebacker ('Jemima the Hutt,' one character calls her)."

Later comes this important paragraph, quoting from professor and film critic Donald Bogle and author Nelson George, who also directs films:

"Tyler Perry understands that much of his audience is African-American women -- the most ignored group in Hollywood -- so he's doing movies that speak to them," Bogle says. "You could see these films as parables or fables. There's a black prince figure who shows up for black who've been frustrated, unhappy, or abused." That's the real reason critics don't like Perry's movies, says Nelson George: They're made for churchgoing, working-class black women, not urban hipsters (or tenured professors). "Tyler Perry speaks to a constituency that is not cool," George says. "There's nothing cutting-edge about the people who like Tyler Perry. So, for a lot of other people, it's like, 'What is this thing that's representing black people all over the world? I don't like it. It doesn't represent me.'"

Entertainment Weekly's story is not yet available online. The paragraph quoting both Bogle and George appears on the same page as a large photo of Perry, who's directing Cicely Tyson in Madea's Family Reunion while wearing a T-shirt that reads "Profanity Free Set."

Writing nearly a year ago on The Root, Andre C. Willis of Yale Divinity School made similar complaints about Perry -- and offered a remarkably grim list of topics that Perry ought to incorporate into his comedy to prove himself enlightened:

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 [undergird] 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.

Willis' essay notwithstanding, Perry is no cardboard fundamentalist. He has worked with the Pentecostal TV evangelist T.D. Jakes and he credits Oprah Winfrey with helping him transform from a homeless man into a multimedia entrepreneur.

In an interview earlier this year with The Hollywood Reporter, Perry clearly expressed what boundaries he feels free to push, and where:

THR: What is your exact demographic? We know it is largely black women, but is there anything more specific?

Perry: It's about 50% Christian churchgoing. It depends on what part of the country I'm in. If I'm in the Bible Belt it's 90% churchgoing. If I'm up north in Newark it may be 30%, so it depends on where you are. I used to adjust the shows to where I am. If I was in the Bible Belt I made it more Christian, God-themed. If I was up north I could get away with saying "ass" a little more. I would say 75%-80% women, 10%-20% men and about 5% children. What I've learned is you treat the women right and they bring everybody else.

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