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The secret to Tyler Perry’s success
In June 2006, when the bulk of papers belonging to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were about to be auctioned at Sotheby’s and possibly into private hands, Mayor Shirley Franklin and the city of Atlanta pre-empted the bidding with a $32 million offer — ensuring that the papers stayed both in the city and for the public. According to the New York Times, Ms. Franklin accomplished this by calling in favors from Atlanta bigwigs. Three were mentioned up front: Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola and Tyler Perry.
Let me repeat that: Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola and Tyler Perry. Two international corporations... and a playwright who was homeless a decade ago.
Shocking the industry
I’ve been intrigued by Tyler Perry since February 2005 when the film based upon one of his hugely successful plays, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” was savaged by critics and went to No. 1 at the box office. This equation — snubbed by critics, big bucks — describes practically every weekend at the modern box office, but most box-office winners are sleek corporate products, blockbusters and niche films, buoyed by marketing and product tie-ins. They’re top-down films.
“Diary” was a bottom-up film. Because of Perry’s theater work he had the support of a constituency long ago ignored by Hollywood — black church crowds — and they came out en masse for “Diary.” So even though the film screened in fewer theaters (1,483) than any other film in the top 10, it trumped them all and, as they say, shocked the industry.
A year later, Perry succeeded again with “Madea’s Family Reunion.” And while “Daddy’s Little Girls” underperformed in February 2007, Perry showed he could make it without Madea and outside of black history month when “Why Did I Get Married?” debuted at No. 1 last October.
Two more of his movies are being released this year: “Meet the Browns” this week and “The Family that Preys” in September.
For most of these films, Perry writes them (from his already successful plays), stars in them (usually in multiple roles), produces and directs them. They are wholly his. But what are they?
Trying the patience of Job
I’d characterize them this way: opulent soap operas with overt Christian messages and comic relief along the edges.
The plot? There’s usually an impossibly bad man (Charles, Carlos, Mike), who is physically and mentally abusive to the heroine.
There’s usually an impossible good man (Orlando, Frankie, Sheriff Troy), a handsome Christian with a working-class job and artistic aspirations, who helps and passively loves the heroine.
Since the outcome to this dilemma is obvious, the “drama,” such as it is, lies in keeping the heroine with the impossibly bad man and away from the impossibly good man for as long as possible. This is done by making the woman a doormat (Helen in “Diary”) or a martyr (Sheila in “Married”). They either have the patience of Job... or they’re so dumb as to try the patience of Job.
Look at “Diary.” In the beginning, Helen (Kimberly Elise) admits that after 18 years of marriage, her husband, Charles (Steve Harris), has become a stranger to her. Then after Charles is crushingly cruel to her, she says in voiceover: “Why do I love this man so much?”
We don’t know. He’s having an affair. That’s not enough. She comes home to a U-Haul in the driveway and all new clothes — that don’t quite fit — in her closet. The other shoe doesn’t drop. When he confronts her with the other woman, she still won’t leave and has to be physically dragged from their mansion. She returns to her estranged family (Madea and company), and they give divine rationale for leaving her husband and standing on her own. She resists. The impossibly nice man keeps helping. She resists him, too. Basically she is as resistant to accepting the good as she is in leaving the bad.
But at some point in all of Perry’s films, there’s a violent, worm-turns moment. So Sheila breaks a bottle over Mike’s head (“Married?”) and Lisa throws hot grits on Carlos (“Family Reunion”), and, in the most disturbing example, Helen returns to Charles, now paralyzed, and abuses him. It’s pretty sadistic stuff. Perry’s characters often say “Lord have mercy” and you wonder if it’s because his characters have so little.
Perry himself was physically abused by his father, and he spent his early adult life coming to terms with that abuse until he was able to forgive the man — and by extension himself — and this is the arc of his films: abuse, revenge, forgiveness through the grace of God. The heroine is then able to live her life fully while the impossibly bad man sinks into repentance. It’s an Oprah wish-fulfillment moment. It’s “The Color Purple.”
And it’s the secret to his success.
The great conflict in American art
But something more important is going on, too.
In his films the comic relief is provided by the older generation — the straight-talking, gun-toting, nurturing grandma, Madea (Perry in drag), and her straight-talking, flatulent brother Joe (Perry again) — and not only are these characters more entertaining, they point out what’s historically relevant about Perry’s work.
The great conflict in American art and life is the assimilationist conflict: tensions between Old World and New, between immigrant parents and first-generation children, between a disappearing cultural authenticity and a bland, assimilated future. For most ethnic groups the dividing line is Ellis Island: We were this but we can become that. Forgetting what we were is part of the American dream.
Obviously, there was no Ellis Island for black Americans. There was no possibility of an American dream... until, perhaps, the Civil Rights movement. At the least, there’s this dividing line in Perry’s work. The disappearing cultural authenticity lies with the pre-Civil Rights generation — Madea, Joe, the elder Browns — while the post-Civil Rights generation has become more or less assimilated. They have high-powered jobs: lawyer, doctor, architect. They speak the bland American middle. They’re repressed (sexually, verbally) and rely on an overt romanticism (candles, wine, more candles and, when necessary, live angels hanging from the ceiling) to make up for this repression. To get right, to find the path again, they always have to return to the elder generation. It’s indicative that the one film where the elder generation didn’t make an appearance, “Why Did I Get Married?,” is reminiscent of nothing so much as Alan Alda’s “Four Seasons.” That’s about as assimilated as you can get.
Unfortunately, Perry isn’t doing enough with this generational conflict. He’s reduced it to a stand-up joke. Old folks is ugly and speak they mind. Young folks is pretty but sure got troubles. Followed by an amen. Less melodramatic truths can be told but Perry isn’t telling them. He’s basically a crowd-pleaser — it’s another reason for his success — and his crowd wants the abuse/revenge/forgiveness arc. They want the amen.
Interestingly, the one film that didn’t include the abuse arc is probably Perry’s best film, “Daddy’s Little Girls,” and it owes much of its power to the quiet authority of lead actor Idris Elba (Stringer Bell from “The Wire”), whose character, Monty, doesn’t fit easily into any preconceived grooves. He has the heft of real life about him. But “Girls” was also Perry’s one box-office disappointment.
I’ll still be interested to see where Perry goes with all of this. At least he’s making what he wants to make rather than what some corporation wants him to make. “Visions are worth fighting for,” Orson Welles tells Ed Wood in “Ed Wood.” “Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” I just wish Tyler Perry’s dreams were closer to Orson Welles’ than Ed Wood’s.
—Erik Lundegaard already misses “The Wire.” This article was originally published 3/17/08 on MSNBC.com.