Madea, Tyler Perry, and Church-Going Black Women

Last month, Lionsgate announced its acquisition of the feature film rights to Ntozake Shange's stageplay "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.". Musicvideo director Nzingha Stewart has penned the screenplay and will direct the film adaptation of the play which is comprised of 20 poems on themes of love, abandonment, domestic abuse, rape, abortion, and other issues as faced by black women.  With this announcement, Lionsgate "touted its leadership role in producing and distributing a diverse roster of motion pictures about black characters."

"Evidence" of this leadership includes plans to release Sundance winner "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"; worldwide rights to "More Than a Game", a documentary about LeBron James' high school career; and Tyler Perry's next two films, "I Can Do Bad All by Myself" and "Why Did I Get Married Too?"

I'm excited about two of these five films.  One guess which two.

I'm only a generation removed from the era in which it was a Big Deal for blacks to appear on a screen at all, small or large.  Growing up, I heard older folks talk about gathering around whatever TV sets were available in the community to see an actual black performer (not a white one in black face).  I always had a TV (and movies) at my disposal, but I still found it exciting whenever I saw characters with faces like mine and those of people in my community.  I remembering standing in line with my mother and her friends for nearly two hours in order to see the screen version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.   I was 14, hadn't read the book, and had no idea what the movie was about. All I'd been told in advance was, "It's about black women." The novelty of that, plus my mom and her friends' excitement about the movie was enough for me--I couldn't wait to see it.

Obviously now, 20-plus years later, such films are no longer an Event, and "about black women" alone is no longer sufficient to arouse my interest...or get me to buy a ticket.  Exhibit A: BAPS and Exhibit B: Tyler Perry's films.

A recent Entertainment Weekly article takes a look at Tyler Perry's film franchise and purports to take readers "inside black America's secret culture wars":

''Tyler keeps saying that Madea is based on black women he's known, and maybe so,'' says Donald Bogle, acclaimed author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. ''But Madea does have connections to the old mammy type. She's mammy-like. If a white director put out this product, the black audience would be appalled.''


But it isn't just the stereotypes in Perry's movies that trouble his detractors. It's also what they consider to be his plantation-era attitudes about class. ''All of his productions demonize educated, successful African-Americans,'' says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts. ''It's a demonization that has long existed in certain segments of the black community.'' The schism reaches back to the days of ''house'' and ''field'' slaves — when the first African-Americans were segregated even from one another — and persists today in distinctions between light- and dark-skinned blacks. ''Tyler Perry is simply reflecting the thinking of a lot of uneducated, working-class African-Americans,'' Boyd says.


 ''Comedy and stereotypes go hand in hand,'' notes Nelson George, author of Blackface: Reflections on African Americans and the Movies and the memoir City Kid. ''That's why intellectuals have a hard time with humor.''


''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 women 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.'''

[all emphasis mine]

"Intellectual" means diffferent things to different people, but I'm certainly more inclined to consider myself an intellectual than to identify as uneducated...and yet I wouldn't say that I have a hard time with humor. Comedy based on stereotypes treads on shaky, but potentially subversive and brilliant ground. I believe Madea falls squarely in the "shaky" category.

I'm neither an urban hipster nor a tenured professor, but I'm not a fan of Tyler Perry's movies either. To me, they are one-note--and not a note I find particularly funny.

Madea [pronounced MUH deah short for "Mother Dear"] et al simply aren't everyone's cup of tea, for a host of reasons; comedy is, after all, subjective.  But it seems where Tyler Perry's films are concerned, it goes deeper than that.

I've read bloggers and commenters who, in reaction to criticism of Perry's films, and to Madea in particular, say that the "real" reason these "other people" criticize Perry is because they feel the need to "prove" themselves to or look good in the eyes of whites, are embarrassed by Perry's "regressive, down-market archetypes," or worry that Perry's films affirm stereotypes of blacks, and thus make us "look bad" in the eyes of whites.  Here's one such comment from a TalkingPointsMemo blog entry entitled, "Tyler Perry, America's Auteur":

The irony in Tyler
Perry's films, they are more factual than stereotypical, at least imo.
He takes composites of many different women he has known in life and
places them into one character, Medea.

The character's popularity is what drives many to see these films.
For many, she represents traits found in many Black families and
communities. Sassy, boisterous with a take no prisoners attitude, yet
wise and compassionate in a ornery sort of way.

Upward mobile Blacks IMO are often embarrassed by this behavior and
couch their embarrassment in indignation. They feel we have to act and
be a certain way in order to prove to Whites we are on equal footing.
Personally, it's a notion I find rather sad.

Once we learn to look for answers by looking inward, as oppose to
placing more importance on outward manifestations, film makers like
Tyler Perry will become more mainstream; maybe?

The overall essence of Madea is a strong, self assured, confident woman with a heart of gold. Too bad people miss that. [emphasis mine]

But perhaps in this "culture war", "bourgie" blacks aren't on the offensive, but rather the defensive against those who would treat Perry's films as a litmus test for authentic blackness--as in, "If you don't like Madea/Tyler Perry films, then you're bourgie/wannabe-white/concerned with impressing whites." It saddens me when blacks do to each other--and ourselves--what so many have fought and sacrified to stop others from doing: putting us in confining boxes. 

The EW article addressed the "culture war" waging over Perry's films with regard to class, but it neglected to mention the "scolding" Perry's films give women, according to blogger Nichole writing at

"Be quiet, in appearance and voice. Don't try to be more than what you are. Serious ambition is a danger to the family. Be grateful for "good enough." Wait for the right man to notice you. Don't bring attention to yourself. Be appropriately thankful when a man takes care of you."  Read the rest.


Just how popular is the Madea/Tyler Perry machine? According to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, Perry's latest, "Madea Goes to Jail" debuted as the No. 1 movie in America its opening weekend (February 20, 2009), bringing in over $41 million, representing 34 percent of the weekend moviegoing audience. As of March 22, the film has grossed over $87 million.

by Deesha Philyaw
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8 Comments Have Been Posted

tyler perry

I watched the Family that Preys when I was stuck in a long flight once. There was an ambitious black woman (clearly bad), and her husband (good), who wanted her to spend more time with the family. When he finds out that she had a secret bank account with some $300,000, he takes all her money out without telling her to start his own business. She finds out and goes apeshit on him, then he SLAPS her, and everyone is meant to think she deserves it. Her boss-lover also dumps her, so then she sees the error of her ways and goes back to her husband, who is still apparently a good guy, and they live happily ever after.

Black or not, this story is garbage.

You are so right. The movie

You are so right. The movie was plain bad. Pure, unadulterated garbage.

As a black woman I can't say

As a black woman I can't say that I like Tyler Perry's films. But mainly because his films aren't that good. It isn't a matter of trying to look good for whites. His films are simply horrible. I am also put off by the career driven black woman/humble working class black woman dichotomy that are present in his films. The characters aren't all that complex and don't seem to have much depth, and his films are too didactic for my taste.

I agree.

I don't like Perry's films either. The last one, Madea goes to Prison, was a real waste of time. I didn't like how the Madea plot was really slapsticky, and reinforced stereotypes of black people. That plot didn't intermingle well with the melodrama involving the two assistant district attorneys and the lady who was a prostitute. You're exactly right: in every one of his movies (that I've seen anyway) there is always a binary position between the unsympathetic successful black professional woman, and the downtrodden working class black woman. I also didn't like how he danced around the reason behind the woman becoming a prostitute. They implied that she had been gang raped in college and that she became a hooker after that. Which really doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

The characters are wooden, and the plots are just an excuse for melodrama and slapstick. Our culture needs a film maker that adequately channels the African American experience for audiences of all races. But Tyler Perry isn't that film maker.

I'm not buying any crazy today...

I pretty much agree with the comments above: My comedic choices don't have to be so rife with intelligence that the joke goes over my head, but it does have to be on a level where I don't feel the jokes are banal.

At any rate, Tyler Perry is a trickster. He's repackaging an old formula and making millions off women who gain satisfaction in being appreciated for their beauty (rightly so) but the way he goes about it, is not affirming or worthwhile, it's regressive.

I do like Tyler Perry's work

I do like his work, but before the movies came out there were his plays. They are much deeper and look at issues that all of us experience in life. Although he has a faith that is different than my own, I truly enjoy his sense of humor and characters. Check out the plays - the movies are of course 'hollywood material' because he's come far enough to get a movie made there, and of course those kind of movies can be spun thin. But, unfortunately, so can independent movies and independent music.


I can understand to an extent where Perry might be coming from. Perhaps he's been wronged in the past and feels the same way about women as I sometimes do about men. But you can't assume every man/woman is bad, right? Let's just say that it's best to avoid extremes in general especially when it comes to stereotypes, in this case those of women. I don't want to be seen as a militant feminist who decries every form of entertainment and can't enjoy anything, but I definitely don't want to be perceived as a male-dominated house frau who can't enjoy anything because of someone else's restrictions.

However, this is a movie, a fantasy, something nowhere near real. Entertainment always uses extremes to invoke the correct emotions in people that will leave them wanting more and willing to spend more and possibly leave them resenting the victims of said stereotype(s). This last thing unfortunately happens when people jump to conclusions and let their emotions get the better of them rather than really thinking about the reality (or lack thereof) of what they just saw and is especially sad when a person embodies the stereotype because they feel it's what the entire world wants them to be. Perhaps Perry and his male counterparts in Hollywood dont' understand they hold this power...or maybe they do. Maybe they get off on it.

But regardless of Perry's potentially stiletto-ed feelings, he is fulfilling his role in an industry that's male-dominated and therefore points out all the imperfections of the opposite sex by branding women as sex objects, property, only here to serve men. I hate to seem no better than the other guy, but I absolutely adore and await more films in which the man learns a lesson or two...

If the intention is to have

If the intention is to have a strong woman role model, why not have a woman play Madea? Vagina face is the new black face!

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