More Than 'Madea': Tyler Perry Changes Course Playing a foul-mouthed, gun-toting grandma made Tyler Perry a big — and frequently criticized — name in black entertainment. But Perry, who was an executive producer on the Oscar-winning film Precious, is now looking to take his work in a new direction.
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More Than 'Madea': Tyler Perry Changes Course

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More Than 'Madea': Tyler Perry Changes Course

More Than 'Madea': Tyler Perry Changes Course

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Among the stars presenting statuettes at the Academy Awards last night was Tyler Perry. He was an executive producer of "Precious." The film won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay.

Mr. TYLER PERRY (Executive Producer, "Precious"): They just said my name at the Oscars. I better enjoy it because it'll probably never happen again.

NORRIS: Tyler Perry is a tall, handsome guy who's written, directed and starred in half a dozen hit movies mostly centering on women, but here's where the probably-never-happen-again comes in. Perry became a star playing a foul-mouthed grandma with a gun.

(Soundbite of film, "Madea Goes to Jail")

Mr. PERRY: (As Madea) I (unintelligible).

NORRIS: On stage and screen, Madea made Tyler Perry into one of the biggest names in black entertainment.

As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Perry is spinning his popular success into an opportunity to tell more serious stories.

NEDA ULABY: Tyler Perry, triple threat, makes hit movies, TV shows and plays about fractious families...

(Soundbite of TV show, "Meet the Browns")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Hell to the no, this is blasphemy. Our daddy was a saint.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Your daddy was a pimp.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: About women in romantic distress.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) For goodness sake, you see a man touching all over me and you do nothing about it. You call yourself a husband? You are a punk.

ULABY: And when he's not producing two successful cable TV shows, Perry is not afraid to put on a dress and stomp around playing Madea, a grandma who literally praises the lord and passes the ammunition.

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. PERRY: (As Madea) You see, when I got saved, thank you, I mean, when I saved the rest of them bullets...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Perry clearly gets an enormous kick out of playing his signature character, a rowdy old hell-raiser who thumps kids when they're sassy...

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. PERRY: (As Madea) Yeah. (Unintelligible)

ULABY: ...when she's not threatening to shank them. Tyler Perry admits his work is not exactly highbrow.

Mr. PERRY: What people forget, because I'm often criticized because the movies are so predictable and so simple, I'm writing for 2-year-olds to 90-year-olds. My fan base is so broad, so I tell a simple story on purpose.

ULABY: Perry's stories rely on a blend of faith and comedy to appeal to a largely female, largely Christian audience who've transformed this former high school dropout into one of the entertainment world's most formidable new figures. But the criticism he's received has been harsh.

Filmmaker Spike Lee used racially loaded words to describe Perry's TV shows: coonery and buffoonery.

Melvin Peters is a professor of African-American literature, and he says Spike Lee has a point.

Professor MELVIN PETERS (African-American Literature, Eastern Michigan University): You look at those shows, buffoonery comes into it, a black woman slapping a man upside the head, telling jokes about the crackhead woman character...

(Soundbite of TV show)

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Next time you're on crack, pick me up one of those $20 Rolexes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PETERS: You're on perilous ground when you present these things as humorous, you know? I mean, what crack has done to the African-American community, African-American women in particular. These are troubling things, you know?

ULABY: But Perry says he is passionate about telling women's stories. It's always been the basis of his artistic drive as well as the source of his financial success. Still, Perry's approach to women's stories has recently diversified dramatically.

(Soundbite of film, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire")

Ms. GABOUREY SIDIBE (Actor): (As Precious) My name is Clareece Precious Jones. I want to be on the cover of a magazine.

ULABY: The movie "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" could not be more different from Tyler Perry's previous projects. "Precious" grapples with social problems seriously. It's artsy, disturbing and - new for Perry -critically acclaimed. But what attracted Tyler Perry to the film was his identification with the main character - an obese, illiterate teenage girl abused by her mother played the actress Mo'Nique.

(Soundbite of film, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire")

Ms. MO'NIQUE (Actor): (As Mary) So those things that she told you I did to her? Who else was going to love me?

Mr. PERRY: You know, my mother was my protector growing up because I was in a house like the one in "Precious," and my father was Mo'Nique's character. So she would take me everywhere with her to protect me. So I went to hair salons, and I went to the Lane Bryant. And I would listen to all these women, you know, a little boy listening to all this, I soaked up everything. So a lot of times when I'm writing, I'm thinking about those women and those experiences.

ULABY: Tyler Perry has used those experiences for his movies, TV shows and plays throughout his entire career. He says Madea comes from the same place as Precious. She's based on real women who have also been his intended audience. Now, though, Perry wants his stories about women to have a broader reach.

Mr. PERRY: I've kind of painted myself in a box with the Tyler Perry brand.

ULABY: While he's not going to abandon Madea, Perry says he'll soon retire her for a while.

Mr. PERRY: It's very risky. It's very risky on so many levels. That's why I started this other company to do these types of films.

ULABY: Perry has essentially started an art house division called 34th Street Productions. It's named for "Miracle on 34th Street" because Perry says his life is a miracle. In his 20s, he lived in his car while writing a musical that eventually found a following in the black theater circuit.

Now, not two decades later, Perry owns a massive movie studio in Atlanta. There, he's now filming an adaptation of a play that embodies the revolutionary thrill of black feminism and identity politics in the 1970s.

(Soundbite of play, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf")

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (As character) My spirit is too anxious to understand the separation of soul and gender. My love is too delicate to have thrown back in my face.

ULABY: Written by playwright Ntozake Shange, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" ran on Broadway and was earlier filmed for public television.

(Soundbite of television program, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf")

Unidentified Woman #4 (Actor): (As character) My love is too beautiful to have thrown back on my face.

Unidentified Woman #5 (Actor): (As character) I jump. My love is too take it to the bridge to have thrown back on my face.

ULABY: "For Colored Girls" is a staple of black literature courses, like the ones taught by professor Melvin Peters.

Prof. PETERS: Ntozake Shange is a writer of great intelligence and great stature, and her work is classic.

ULABY: The play lyrically delves into different aspects of black womanhood through a chorus of seven actresses, colorfully identified as the Lady in Red, the Lady in Yellow, the Lady in Blue.

(Soundbite of play, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf")

Unidentified Woman #6 (Actor): (As character) Orange butterflies and aqua sequins and ensconced streams-like bosoms, silk roses darting from behind my head, the passion flower of Southwest Los Angeles meanders down Hoover Street.

Mr. PERRY: You know, the story was so rich, and I didn't know, because it was written, you know, when I was born, and I didn't know how powerful and how amazing it was.

ULABY: In fact, Tyler Perry did not particularly care about "For Colored Girls." It was acquired by a member of his staff, and for a while, he says, it was nothing but a problem.

Mr. PERRY: We kept getting notes and couldn't get the script right, and we couldn't figure it out. So I finally started paying attention to it, and I was like, wait a minute, whoa, whoa. This stuff is great.

ULABY: The notion of Madea directing "For Colored Girls" shocked some black intellectuals. Tyler Perry does not blame them.

Mr. PERRY: I'm shocked too. I think they have every right to be shocked. And I've even seen outrage: How dare you touch this? We don't want this to be this way. But rest assured there will be no Madea in the movie, and they can also rest assured that I'm going to stay very true to what Ntozake's done.

ULABY: And maybe Tyler Perry can help guide the play to a new generation of young woman, says African-American literature professor Melvin Peters.

Prof. PETERS: As long as he doesn't play one of the roles, okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls" began filming last fall. He's scripting, directing and producing it. Perry's been cagey about the cast, but it's rumored to include friends like Oprah Winfrey and Jill Scott. The movie is scheduled for release next year.

Tyler Perry's latest romantic drama, "Why Did I Get Married Too," will be in theaters next month.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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