My mom likes crap movies. She always had. I like indie movies. Films that break open or challenge conventional sociopolitical norms. I like nuance. I grew up in a poor, working class neighborhood. I can’t really explain why I like what I like. Looking at both parents, my tastes probably come from my father. My father was a mix of street and academy. He loved Gil Scott Heron and Led Zeppelin. My mom loved the Stylistics and Sister Sledge. I grew up knowing and loving all of it, but the complexity in Heron and Zeppelin carried greater weight.
In the aftermath of the Tyler Perry interview on 60 Minutes on Sunday, I remembered this variety of tastes in my own family. Perry’s interview ended on a sour note as he responded to Spike Lee’s criticism of his films. Yet, it left a set of lingering questions for me.
Does every black artist have a responsibility to represent only positive aspects black life in relation to the white imagination? Or can it be represented as it is? Because being black in America often means trying to prove you’re something you’re not. Our cultural identity is formed in opposition of a projected ‘norm’ [ahem, whiteness]. We’ve internalized and accepted our identity based on what white folks will think of us. What do we actually think of ourselves?
Do white people in America worry this much about the perception of white men in schlock or crap film? I doubt it. Yet, if we were to rank representations of the class within white society, we would see proportionately fewer stories of poor, rural, working class, white Americans than those living the middle class bourgeois suburban American dream.
My grandmother, my mother and my aunts like Tyler Perry’s films. Madea is recognizable to them: the trickster, the Shakespearean fool, Elegba, the foil character that pushes other characters to revelation of a truth. To my grandmother, Madea might as well been Brer Rabbit or Anasi. When I was in high school, my grandma insisted that we go see one of those chitlin circuit plays at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee. It was a family event. I’m not going to lie; it was entertaining. But I also knew it was crap. To some folks in my family, they received it as high art. I was already a snob. Earlier in my theater class, we were searching for monologues for women of color beyond the usual suspects (can you name them? A Raisin in The Sun, Fences) and I stumbled upon George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum. And I found a kindred spirit. Wolfe’s Museum is composed of satirical vignettes of black American culture, representation and history. After reading one of the vignettes, The Last Mama on the Couch Play, I couldn’t take the play we were watching seriously. It had all the tropes and moralizing that broke me out in hives.
What’s the most quoted film in the black community? Ask anyone and they’ll tell you it’s The Color Purple. Walker’s novel was sanitized from its complex examination of sexuality and abuse in its film incarnation, produced by a black man and directed by a white guy. It was commercially viable, a breakout that told a narrative of the black experience that hadn’t been seen in a decade or at all. But my uncle Walker hated The Color Purple. I remember a Sunday after church, where he, my aunts and grandmother hotly debated whether the success of the film was damning to the representation of black men. He didn’t want the white world to view him as abuser. Does his objection make the story any less true? It’s one element of a narrative that’s bigger than just one black man’s experience.
The moralizing center in Tyler Perry’s films grates the nerves and infuriates black intelligentsia and middle class. This conflict isn’t new. Paul Robeson had similar critiques about religion’s (namely Christianity) role in the formation of black culture, political thought and engagement with the white majority American society in the 20th century. His feeling (which I share) was the over reliance on the faith sometimes created a passivity that paralyzed individual growth and social mobility (more on that for another time).
As for Spike Lee… I’m not sure if he should be throwing rocks. Just as much as Perry’s women characters lack dimension, Lee’s women characters have their ‘limits’ too.
If there were more diverse representations of the black American experience in film and television, would that dampen the voracity of Perry’s critics? Would it steer some of his fan base to consider other narratives of the black American experience beyond what they recognize as familiar? Step outside their comfort zone? Perhaps. Ultimately, the question comes down to whether or not these stories are economically viable to the dream factory. Can Hollywood profit from presenting the wide swath of the black American experience to satiate all classes?
I don’t know. For me personally, I like what I like. I like shows like Community because it presents a diverse ensemble cast that experiences America a little sideways with authentic and quirky voices. I like shows like Mad Men because it’s nuanced and challenges me as a viewer and as a writer. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I get that. Perry’s films lack dimensionality for me. But my mom, my aunts, my grandma all own DVDs from Perry’s dream factory. Do I disown my relatives for their love of crap? As much as my grandma has expressed pride and admiration for Perry’s opus, I can’t forget that she was the one who gave me her copy of For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enough, and gave me William Earnest Hinley’s Invictus to remind me that I defined me, not everyone else. The same aunt that owns a DVD of the stage production of Madea, was also the one who put me on to Tori Amos’ From the Choirgirl Hotel and Portishead’s Live at Roseland. My aunt likes what she likes. And while there’s always a little bit of friction within a family in terms of class and social mobility, I don’t feel it’s fair to invalidate their experiences simply because mine have ‘changed’. I can relate to Martin Lawrence’s Roscoe Jenkins and the work it takes to reconcile the contradiction of class and culture within your own family.
I do feel that the criticism from some folks in the greater African American community for Tyler Perry is rooted in middle class notions of ‘respectability’, and certainly complicated by centuries of dehumanizing depictions of blackness in American and Western society. To be clear, I don’t like Tyler Perry’s films or plays. However, I can’t be dismissive of the population that does because to them, those characters mirror their reality.
I recognize that we all want to see idealized versions of ourselves. Something to combat the siege we feel as African Americans to constantly provide contrasting representations to stereotypes, caricatures and overly simplified assumptions about who and what we are to white society, and the world. Something that lives in the popular culture that can limit how many times we have to explain why we’re so articulate or why we’re capable of leading companies, or nations, without fear that we’ll get shot to death at our doorstep.
For me, I feel my responsibility as a writer is to create work that is an honest reflection of what I value and admire. I don’t expect that every black artist to create work I’ll like, nor do I expect every black artist to celebrate my work. But I believe there’s room in the universe for both to exist.