Hilton Als: Tyler Perry Simplifies, Commodifies Black Life

Film maker Tyler Perry has made millions from his screen and stage portrayals of the smart mouth, wise-cracking character Madea. But some argue that Perry’s characters and movies demean the black community with harmful stereotypes. New Yorker contributing writer Hilton Als talks about his recent piece on this subject.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, we take a listen to songs from rising Asian-American soul singers. That's in a few minutes. But first, she is loud, she's aggressive, she packs heat and she's no stranger to jail or to church. And when people make her mad, look out, I'm talking about Madea.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Woman: Who are you?

Mr. TYLER PERRY (Actor, Filmmaker): (As Madea) Who are you?

Unidentified Woman: I'm the owner of this house.

Mr. PERRY: Eh, wrong answer. My granddaughter Helen is the owner of this house. You don't (beep). You ain't got no power or no B.

Unidentified Woman: You can't do this. This is a Vera Wang.

Mr. PERRY: Who that is? Does she do nails? I need to get my nails did.

Unidentified Woman: That's it. I'm calling the police.

Mr. PERRY: I ain't scared of no po-po, call the po-po (beep). Call the po-po (beep).

KEYES: Madea is the brainchild of the highly successful director, writer and producer, Tyler Perry. In addition to becoming one of the most popular female characters in comedy, Madea has made Perry rich. His films have grossed nearly 450 million domestically. And now, largely thanks to Madea's success, Perry is a major player in prestigious movie projects.

He joined Oprah to produce the award-winning film "Precious." And he's currently producing a film version of the acclaimed play "For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough." But Tyler Perry's box office success has earned him the ire of a vocal band of critics. They chide him as a peddler of simplistic morality tales that traffic in tired stereotypes of African-Americans.

Hilton Als recently wrote about Perry and Madea for New Yorker magazine. And he joins me now from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. HILTON ALS (Writer): Hello.

KEYES: So, in your piece, "Mama's Gun: The World of Tyler Perry," you present him as an ambitious and determined entrepreneur. But you also kind of throw down the gauntlet and call Madea, well, an outdated stereotype. Before I ask you why you think that is, do you think she's funny?

Mr. ALS: I think she's funny if you were looking at her through a particular lens, which is to say, as absurdist.

KEYES: Ouch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALS: I didn't mean to hurt you.

KEYES: Not me personally. I didn't write it. But what do you mean by that?

Mr. ALS: Well, I think that there is a certain camp element to Madea. There are certain things about her character that can be amusing, but otherwise I find her to be grating and annoying.

KEYES: Certain things such as?

Mr. ALS: If you sort of take a look at her as, how do I say this without getting us all in jail? If you look at her with a critical eye, and if you sort of contextualize her and put her in the tradition of people like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers and, dare I say, a little bit of Whoopi Goldberg in the '80s, you'll see that she really is part of this tradition that has always been a sort of entertainment staple: loudmouth, presumably strong, but slightly ditzy platform, and who's comedy is really based on the fact that she doesn't really know what she's doing half the time.

KEYES: Before we go further with that, though, since you mentioned jail, you know I have to play a clip from "Madea Goes to Jail," don't you?

Mr. ALS: I thought it was a good segue myself.

(Soundbite of "Madea Goes to Jail")

Unidentified Man: Madea.

Mr. PERRY: Hmm?

Unidentified Man: Now, I know Vanessa wasn't the best girl.

Mr. PERRY: She was the worst, absolute worse. You couldn't have gotten worse if you had prayed and said, God, send me worse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PERRY: Blasting me with words (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: I thought I could change you, Madea.

Mr. PERRY: You can't change people, son. I don't know what makes folks think they can change somebody. You can't change nobody. That is a waste of time, sitting around trying to change somebody.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. PERRY: Maya Angelou said it best. She said, if someone shows you who they are, believe them.

KEYES: You were saying slightly ditzy, strong black woman, but there is kind of this stereotypical large, friendly, nurturing black woman that's supposed to kind of keep us all safe from evil in that sort of thing. But that's not who you think this is, is it?

Mr. ALS: No, if you're just listening to the clip that you played, she's preaching always. It's not a dialogue, and it's not a conversation. So then, therefore, it's not theater or film. It's more of an occasion for sermonizing. That makes her less of a human being than it does an idea - the idea being that someone like Madea is there to tell us how to behave and how to feel.

KEYES: But for all of your issues with her, you've got to admit, she's pretty popular because people are spending bank to go see these movies. What do you think is appealing about her to the audience?

Mr. ALS: I think that it's a largely a sense of security. I don't think that there are many, many strong, black male role models who provide a certain kind of really American, Southern-based comfort that Madea grows out of. She's a signpost in our Obama world of traditional Christian values. And so the comfort that she provides as a figure really has everything to do with the idea of faith being the thing that's going to carry audience members over into Huxtable-like security and sense of self.

KEYES: But why can't people go to the movies - and black people in particular -and see something with a happy ending? Why must it be something, you know, deep and serious and sad?

Mr. ALS: Because I think that black culture is deep and serious. We can always sort of go to the movies to see various aspects of ourselves. I just don't think that Madea should be the most popular and the touchstone for what blackness means to the cinema.

KEYES: I'm interested that you said that because some people that - I actually was having this conversation with somebody a few days ago and there are some people that suggest that there aren't other directors that are trying to appeal to communities of color and black people in particular.

Mr. ALS: Right. Right. Because they don't think that it's an economically feasible market. For instance, it's very, very difficult to get a film made and to pre-sell it to Europe if it has a black female lead because they don't feel that it really sort of translates across or crosses over. I think that Tyler Perry's genius really has been to tap into the domestic market. He knows what his audience is based on having toured America for so long, and then giving them the blueprint for his films prior to the films coming out and then the films have the built-in audience because they've seen it in theaters already.

He has an incredible sense of who his audience is. I'm just saying that why can't there be a different kind of audience taking into consideration a black intellectual audience or a black, you know, various colors, various sexes and ideas?

KEYES: So some people might come back and say so why don't you write that.

Mr. ALS: Well, I've tried and I can't tell you how daunting it is to take these meetings in Los Angeles and then for them to say this script is brilliant and your casting ideas are brilliant, except that we can't sell it because it's too smart.

KEYES: You think that Hollywood is deliberately allowing films that you don't believe show the huge spectrum of our community because it would cause people to think too hard to watch something else?

Mr. ALS: You know, it would sort of challenge the idea of what a black audience is, and Tyler Perry has helped institute the idea of the black audience. The idea is that they want a film that really sort of upholds family values, has a sort of Christian basis and often the conflict has to have a resolution involving being saved by someone with lighter skin.

KEYES: You say in your piece that Madea is the most popular black female comedian on the circuit right now.

Mr. ALS: Mm-hmm.

KEYES: Which is sort of ironic since she's a man in drag, but that's a whole other issue.

Mr. ALS: Yeah.

KEYES: But is this because they're not quality roles for black female comedians or that society only has this vision of this one person, this one woman?

Mr. ALS: Well, I think you touched on something very interesting before, which I had written about and it's the idea that a lot of black performers don't get work because they're not protected by black or white directors. I think someone like Khandi Alexander, who's now on "Treme," is one of the most extraordinary actresses I've seen in years. But she's dependent on someone brilliant like David Simon to realize that and to give her a forum. Tyler Perry's not interested in that kind of nuance because it doesn't sell. It's dollars before art in Hollywood.

KEYES: So are you accusing him or Hollywood of exploiting his audience?

Mr. ALS: I think he's exploiting the preconceptions that Hollywood has about blackness.

KEYES: Hilton Als is a theater critic for The New Yorker. He joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Thanks, Hilton for your thoughts.

Mr. ALS: Thank you so much for having me.

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