This past week, at a press conference regarding his latest Madea flick, Tyler Perry told Spike Lee to go straight to hell. Clearly fed up with discussion of Lee’s comments a few years ago regarding the “coonery and baffoonery” that is Tyler Perry’s film career, Mr. Madea finally took a stand:
“Spike can go straight to hell! You can print that. I am sick of him talking about me, I am sick of him saying, ‘this is a coon, this is a buffoon.’ I am sick of him talking about black people going to see movies. This is what he said: ‘you vote by what you see,’ as if black people don’t know what they want to see.”
Now Perry actually has a point here. To somehow frame his work as “the problem” is actually condescending to his audience. People pay money to see what they want to see. End of story.
But then Perry went too far.
“Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois went through the exact same thing; Langston Hughes said that Zora Neale Hurston, the woman who wrote ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ was a new version of the ‘darkie’ because she spoke in a southern dialect and a Southern tone…”
Tyler Perry is completely full of shit. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois were two of the most prominent and prodigiously talented Black intellectuals of their generation. Likewise, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston are credited with giving us some of the most essential and timeless literary works in all of American literature.
Regardless of the differences in the strategies they employed in their respective works, all four of these individuals were geniuses and incredibly good at what they did. Tyler Perry’s attempt at likening his disagreement with Spike Lee to these famous disputes is totally absurd, mainly because Tyler Perry is not a genius, and he is not incredibly good at what he thinks he does; which is make films that are fascinating and transgressive enough to stand toe-to-toe with the work of Spike Lee, Langston Hughes, or Zora Neale Hurston. Those people made art. He’s not even close.
This has very little to do with the fact that Perry has never gone to film school, and therefore doesn’t really understand film-making as an art form. Miles Davis, Madonna and M.I.A. are just a few examples of artists who are technically limited when it comes to formal training, but are also creative and brilliant enough to take the tools that they do have and make something powerful and transcendent with them.
Tyler Perry doesn’t have that. What this means is that in order to make something that is entertaining for his audience, his films have to be formulaic, obscenely over-the-top and insanely melodramatic. If there is any genius to Perry’s work, it’s that he was smart enough to realize that if you are unable to craft something that is intelligent and thought-provoking, the only other option for making your work standout in the crowd is to make it the complete opposite of intelligent and thought-provoking.
His films crutch themselves along by utilizing nostalgia, sex, and not-at-all-believable dramatic plot turns relentlessly. There is never nuance and absolutely nothing to challenge his audience. Madea films are essentially episodes of Jerry Springer, with religion and God invoked periodically has an invisible hand of justice; the great arbiter that settles all scores and makes everything all right in the end.
This is lowbrow entertainment at its most blatant and exploitative. And that’s fine.
But at the very least, Perry could own up to what he’s doing. His films aren’t very smart, but he clearly is. He has found a winning formula, churning out black films that are expertly designed to hone in on a target audience (black female churchgoers) like a heat-seeking missile, entertaining millions every Easter weekend. In this way, Tyler Perry is undoubtedly a success. Great entertainers entertain their audience.
But great artists challenge their audience.
It’s about time Mr. Madea learned the difference.