Sister Toldja: Tyler Perry

Ed’s Note: Sister Toldja has been one of my favorite bloggers over that last three or four years. She penned this letter to Tyler Perry yesterday on her blog The Beautiful Struggler, and I asked her if I could share it here. It’s worth the read.

Dear Mr. Perry,

I appreciate your commitment to giving Black folks jobs in front of and behind the camera, having opened the largest Black owned film production studio in the country in Atlanta last year. You own the rights to all of your films, which is not something most filmmakers can say. Your love and concern for Black people is undeniable, as proved yet again when you sent a group of Philly children and their families to Disneyland after they had been the victims of racism at a local community pool. You have also introduced generations of young viewers to some of our most treasured and important artists such as Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee and Cicely Tyson, who have all appeared in your films. And while they are often infused with over-the-top humor, your films contain positive messages about self-worth, love and respect.

However, my feelings about your work are somewhat complicated, as is the case for a lot of my fellow Black artists/intellectuals. Much of what we see in your films, particularly the Madea series and your two TV shows ‘Meet The Browns’ and ‘House Of Payne’, is in step with decades old stereotypes of bumbling, emasculated Black male buffoons and crass, sassy Black women. To be completely honest, my circles of friends (many of whom enjoy your film work) find the TBS shows to be wholly unwatchable. As Spike Lee said recently “As African-Americans, we’re not one monolithic group”, thus there is no problem with having diverse images of us on the screen, “But at the same time, for me, the imaging is troubling and it hearkens back to ‘Amos ‘n Andy’.”

Tyler Perry

Tyler Perry

As much as I would like to support your series, especially given the complete dearth of Black shows on television, I simply cannot. In fact, it is the lack of other Black programming that makes the problems with ‘Meet the Browns’ and ‘House of Payne’ so glaring and painful. While both network television and cable have been cruel to Blacks over the past few years, least we not forget that we have a long list of critically acclaimed Black television shows in our past that did not toe the line between comedy and coonery. Among them: ‘The Jeffersons’, ‘227’, ‘Amen’, ‘The Cosby Show’, ‘A Different World’, ‘Roc’, ‘Living Single’, ‘The Bernie Mac Show’ (the only thing resembling a direct descendant to ‘The Cosby Show’s’ family sitcom legacy thus far), etc. There is no reason to believe that Black audiences are less sophisticated in 2009 than they were in 1989 and that we would not be receptive to a show that resembled one of the ones that I mentioned. While I am tempted to watch your shows because they are pretty much the only Black ones on television, I don’t want to send the message to networks and advertisers that I as a Black consumer find those images to be acceptable.

By not submitting your films for pre-release review by critics, you have sent a strong message to the White guardians of Hollywood that you do not require their approval to have a hit film and that is admirable. You notably attacked a negative review by Roger Ebert of ‘Diary of a Mad Black Woman’, stating that he did not understand the film because it wasn’t for him. I agree that cultural ownership of our stories is important and that what we experience as a people cannot always be appreciated or understood by others. However, I and many other Black viewers have expressed some of the very same attitudes about your work that Ebert and other White critics articulated. You’ll have a very poignant story going and then here is this jarring, over-the-top Madea character in the middle of it all. It’s akin to giving a child candy in order to make them take their vitamins and I find it to be a bit insulting.

In most of your films, you are a lead actor, the screenwriter, director and executive producer. While you are obviously a man of many talents, know that hubris is the downfall of many a great man. Given that there are so few opportunities for Black artists in Hollywood, you would best use your power for the greater good of our people by removing some of the many hats that you wear and distributing them amongst your artistic peers. One of the biggest, and oft-ignored, criticisms of your work has been the writing. You are obviously capable of creating these very engaging and unique stories and in the hands of a masterful writer, one of your films could silence all the critics and naysayers.

As far as the Madea character goes, I won’t say much as you have again recently expressed your desire to stop portraying her. I’d be lying if the gun-toting, pot smoking granny never gave me a chuckle and the character certainly has a lot of heart and something very earnest about her. However, I can’t help but to feel that through her, the country has had the opportunity to laugh at one of the most important members of the Black community: the “Big Mama”, the beloved grandmother. And while our grannies are often these boisterous, over-the-top figures, I just can’t quite get with seeing Big Mama completely desexualized and played by a 6’3 man with prosthetic breasts flopping in the wind. Our grandmothers deserve much more than that.

At this point, you have created an empire on the foundation of love, Christianity and concern, but also stereotype and Black pathologies. Mr. Perry, you are in a position now where if you be so willing, you could completely revolutionize the world of Black film. I appreciate the step that you and your friend Oprah have taken in helping to fund the soon-to-be released Lee Daniels film ‘Precious’ and I hope that you continue to support the work of other Black directors. Please bring both fledgling and seasoned Black writers and directors to your studios and use the many tools that you have worked so hard for so that the next young artist doesn’t have struggle as you did to get his voice heard. There is so much talent within our ranks and you are one of the few folks in a position to get that talent in people’s homes.

I beg of you, Mr. Perry- stop dismissing the critics as haters and realize that Black people are in great need of new and honest images of us in the media. We have had men in dresses who weren’t actual drag performers and we’ve had bumbling buffoons and loud, aggressive mammies. I know you have more, because we are more and YOU are more. It is obvious that your people will be loyal to you and support you no matter what. So do right by us. I think you love us enough to do just that.

Sister Toldja

P.S. Click here for Part II of Sister Toldja’s take on Tyler Perry.


30 responses to “Sister Toldja: Tyler Perry

  1. I had been planning a post on Mr. Perry with these exact points so imagine my joy to see my feelings typed out so eloquently.

    Better writing would help Mr. Perry move away from the stereotypical two dimensional characters he has built his empire on. Just infuse a bit more quality, forethought and perspective into those plots and his films could go from common to extraordinary.

  2. I have a like/hate relationship with Tyler Perry movies. I can appreciate that he is a black man that is doing well for himself and trying to fill a void in TV and cinema. These two industries generally don’t cater to black people.

    What I dislike is that I just don’t feel that he is a good movie producer/director. I think his plays are pretty good even though I do have a problem with the aforementioned sterotypes (particularly Madea and the educated black woman as the villian). His talents as a playwrite don’t translate onto the big screen for me. I feel like his movies are written as if they were plays; full of plot holes and overacting.

    Like it or not, he is going to be around in the movie business for a while so hopefully he will make the choice to improve the industry for the better.

  3. I’m in the significant minority, I think.

    The only play I’ve seen by Tyler Perry I didn’t like was “Meet the Browns” and to date, I haven’t disliked any of his movies. I feel like he’s found a formula that is working.

    In recent years, Dr. Phil and I have had a falling out on the content of his shows, but a long time ago I heard him say something that I’ve never forgotten: “People don’t do things that don’t work for them. Would you stick your hand in a blender and turn it on? No. Why not? Because it doesn’t work for you.” We change our actions because what we are doing doesn’t work. Tyler Perry’s artistic expressions speak to a certain type of black person that (apparently) isn’t many of the people I associate with and definitely isn’t any of the people that would review his film.

    Maybe TP should let his films be reviewed so that those people his films aren’t for won’t go see it, I don’t know, but so far I can’t find enough reason to be mad at him for what he does or even encourage him to do it differently. The minute he changes his song, he’ll do a nose dive because there’s always 50 people complaining about the way you do what you do and saying they’d support you if you just did it this way and as soon as you do, only 15 show.

    As for his Madea character, I think that’s the one place where you can see how he tries to give the majority of his fans what they want. He tried to move away from the character but the fans kept asking for her. Tyler’s long been tired of playing her, but the type of black people he makes films for aren’t tired of seeing her.

    I think the debate over Tyler Perry and his movies raises a larger question that no one ever truly asks: why don’t we have another person out there making a boatload of films a la “The Wood” or “Brownsugar” or “The Best Man” or (one of my top 5 movies) “Love & Basketball”, etc…? Why, when those movies came out in rapid succession, did no one find an audience they could constantly appeal to?

    I don’t know the answer to these questions, maybe it was too many people complaining that they didn’t see themsleves in those films, like so many people complained they didn’t see themselves in “Boyz N Da Hood” or “Baby Boy” or “Don’t Be A Menace…”

    In sum, I don’t think it’s Tyler’s responsibility to do anything other than what he’s been doing; in fact, I believe he’s gone above and beyond. It’s time for someone else to step up and do what he isn’t doing, but apparently enough people would like to see…

    [squeezes eyes shut and prepares for the hail of stones]

    • @ASmith

      I actually agree with you. I first fell in love with Tyler Perry’s work when the play ‘Diary of a Black Woman’ was in strong circulation among the black community. That was back around 7 years or so ago and my friends and I used to sit up and watch it for hours cracking up at Madea. I think Madea is great for his plays and I went to see ‘Madea Goes to Jail’ when it was touring the theatres and I can tell you the play was 10 times better than the movie. I think that Madea is better suited for the stage and not necessarily the big screen. After a while I get tired of her antics and over the top stereotypes of older black women. I have two grandmothers who act nothing like her so it does kind of get a little old after a while.

      But, I also agree with you that Tyler’s formula is working well; so until the green stops coming in he SHOULD continue to give the black church folk what they want. That’s his niche and that’s who made him who he is today. *shrugs shoulders*; I guess you can just call me stuck up. The only two movies that I feel Tyler outdid himself with are ‘Why Did I Get Married’ and ‘The Family That Preys’. Neither were Madea movies and both of them touched me deeply…

      • I agree with you on the movies he outdid himself with. I saw Why Did I Get Married twice in the theaters (and I don’t do movies in theaters). I do belive his non-Madea films are better than the ones with her in it. His non-Madea films appeal to some of us, but not as much as his Madea films appeal to the black church folk who are his constant and loyal bread and butter.

        • I’m not going to restate my thoughts on this one. I’ll just say that I think that a lot of what he writes isn’t that great and that Madea needs to go.

          I believe the main reason Tyler Perry has become so popular is because he has no competition. I don’t think he’d be as big as he is if we had the black movie market from about 1999 to 2004.

          • I’m gonna have to disagree with your last assertion. I think he’d be big, we just wouldn’t notice.

            Then again, maybe we need to define “big”

            • @asmith: I’ll say this… I think a lot of people go to his films because they don’t have any other black films to go see at this point.

              But he’s branded the hell outta his work, and they know they’re going to get *a* black experience if they go see his film. That’s undeniable.

              If there were other black filmmakers with a similar clout who were making black films, I don’t believe Tyler wouldn’t be what he is today.

            • Yeah, I agree with you ASmith. Conversely there were few black folks that I overheard saying that movies like ‘Love Jones’, ‘Love & Basketball’, ‘The Best Man’, etc. – movies that came out circa late nineties & early 2000’s were just ‘cool’….I kid you not…so Tyler would have likely been successful among what you stated were his bread and butter. Southern church folk many of whom are countrified and act like many of the characters in his films.

              Damon, you have to understand and trust me, I know it’s difficult, but there are black folks that act like this and that like this stuff. You know I understand your sentiment because I was having my Toni Childs moment yesterday, but this stuff is real and people are eatin’ it up like free fried chicken on Sunday…

              • Exactly, jlbd. There are people who identify with those characters, even the Madea character and they want to see her because they know her and they know her intimately.

                Tyler Perry has proven he can make films that those of us who don’t come from backgrounds that preclude us to identifying with Madea and her “ghetto” family members can identify with; however, we aren’t his core audience, we weren’t there when he was on the chitlin circuit so as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t owe us very much.

                Some of the audiences in Tyler Perry movies go because it’s a black film and seeing some black people on screen in an “ok” movie is better than seeing no black people — however the majority of the audience is comprised of people who see themselves on that screen each and everytime

                • @ASmith

                  I remember when ‘Madea Goes to Jail’ came out my fiance and I went to go see ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. When our movie let out and we were leaving, there was a line of folks (us) snaked out the door on both ends of the theatre to see Tyler’s movie. He and I both laughed and said, ‘y’all fools can have that mess’ and went home. I didn’t even see Madea till my fiance bought home a bootleg copy, and that’s all I needed to get the idea of what happened. lol

              • @jlbd: I’m not discounting those black people. I have them in my family and live in a city full of them. *shrugs*

                What I’m saying is that they don’t make up the majority of the audience Tyler Perry has built at this point…

                I think that people forget that black movies have to be crossover successes for them to make the money that Perry made at the box office with his last film…

                Brown Sugar and The Best Man were big time crossovers if I’m not mistaken. Right now, though, there is no one competing with Tyler Perry… and it seems as though no one (and I’m talking about the studios, not the black filmmakers) has been making much of an attempt in recent years.

                • ‘What I’m saying is that they don’t make up the majority of the audience Tyler Perry has built at this point… ‘


                  Very untrue…lol

                  • maybe I should have said overwhelming majority… OK.

                    But seriously, he made $40m on the opening weekend of that last film, Madea Goes To Jail, right? I don’t think that’s 80 percent black money…

                    • I do and I’ll tell you why. There are many black people (and I have them in my family so I know) that don’t go to the show. These black people are mostly ‘church folk’ that are trying to stay away from worldly, secular things. Tyler always has a strong Christian message in his films and plays, thus this makes them feel comfortable supporting his movies. It has been stated before on tv that this is a niche that previously was untapped. These people are abundant in population but did not frequent the movie theatre. NOW, they are and that is why Tyler is so successful. No other person has been able to reach these masses before. Tyler’s method is unprecedented.

                    • I haven’t been to a Tyler Perry movie with whtie people in it yet.

                      Doesn’t mean they’re not going to see him, but they aren’t the money.

                      What’s true for rap albums (that is, those artists like Jay-Z who are going double and triple platinum, are selling to a white audience) is not, in my humble, unable to produce true scientific stats opinion, holding true for Mr. Perry.

                      In fact, we may call it the Tyler Perry phenomenon.

                      Damon, you know I ♥ you, but in my post-college life I’ve learned a lot including: You and your 3 friends are 4 people. That’s all. In other words, it’s always safer to assume that you and those you know are in the minority than to assume you are the majority. TP’s consistent numbers have to come from 1 of 2 things: crossover, which if that had happened we’d be seeing a larger market for his types of films or black folks are actually showing up and out for his films and therefore giving him the numbers all by themselves.

                      Many of my friends agree that Tyler is shuckin-n-jivin and they refuse to support him… but me and my 3 friends are 4 people. That’s all.

                    • I NEVER have seen white folks in his movies. If I have it was like 1 or 2 in a theatre of like 300 of us! lol!

    • Asmith I soooooooo agree with you, to that fact that I’m smiling and wanting to hug you through the computer **** hugs*****.

      For Sister Toldja * in love and respect sis* I write this.

      I do NOT eat cheese, never did, never will. I hate the smell of it, and hate to see it. Will I go see a MOVIE that talks about CHEESE? Nope, probaly won’t. Why? Because it doesnt interest me. To spend time talking and discussing WHY I DONT LIKE IT TO PEOPLE WHO DONT UNDERSTAND…. is like trying to get a dog to apply for a JOB! It doesnt work.

      SO many people spend lots of time hating Tyler Perry, blogging about him, discussing with their TYLER PERRY friends why THEY don’t like his movies. Can you imagine how TIME CONSUMING THAT IS?

      I wonder why people dont spend more time discussing THINGS THEY DO LIKE, THINGS AND MOVIES THAT DOES INTEREST them.
      I for the LIFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE OF ME cant see myself discussing CHEESE over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over AGAIN. To a audience who AGREES WITH ME OR THAT DOESNT.

      So, my point is THIS…….. Tyler Perry has his audience. Thats in the bag, its already a DONE DEAL!!! People have to decide if they like his WORK or not. I feel that every movie that HAS EVER BEEN MADE, either you can relate or you can’t? There are Madea’s out there * Im 42* so yes I can relate to her because I like how she tells the truth. If people says she’s a sterotype, then guess what? Every character in a movie is toooooooo!!! Because in any character that has ever been in a movie SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE CAN RELATE.

      Its okay if you go see a movie and you dont fit one of those characters. Thats not for you. Why do people feel that they have to connect to a character because they paid to see a movie?Everybody havent been through everything, so for those who arent feeling his movies, FINE MOVE ON…… but there are people who are going through those things, people who want to marry and have hope in those type of Prince-Princess tales.There are people who just DONT KNOW HOW TO FORGIVE NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES THEYVE SEEN A TYLER PERRY MOVIE. Everyone is on different levels in life. So dont knock a Tyler Perry movie because you cant feel it, or its shucking and jiving and your eyes. For everything that you in your life DO, I can find you someone WHO DOESNT . THATS HOW LIFE IS.

      Again I don’t eat cheese, but I will look and AFEEL like a dayum fool to hold conversations to those who do and to those who don’t. The reason why Im sooooo happy in life, is because I make all my conversations ABOUT THINGS I LOVE AND UNDERSTAND.


  4. i still am holding out for spike to do what he does (did) so i’m a lil indifferent towards mr. perry. TP said on oprah that he does have his own island so i’m a fan of his financial suave.

    RE: movie-making, damon has a very good point, there isn’t much competition. i just saw ‘daddy’s little girls’ because too many ppl say i remind them of gabrielle union’s character (whatev). i really liked the plot and the cast did a great job. i don’t know why doesn’t he do more of these types of films minus draggged up g’ma madea. same for ‘why did i get married.’ in addition to running the show behind the camera i think TP likes to act so he incorporates the character (madea) that’s gotten him to where he is.
    the shunkin’-n-jivin’ will get old and he’ll have to move on, and i believe TP knows that.

    • the shunkin’-n-jivin’ will get old and he’ll have to move on, and i believe TP knows that.

      If shuckin and jivin really ever got old, TP wouldn’t even be where he is. We’ve been doing that song-and-dance (the suckin and jivin) for eons and we still do it because it still pays. Used to be only white people found it funny, but these days black folks eat it up and white folks no longer see the humor.

      Like jlbd said, there are people who identify heavily with those characters and do so in enough numbers that Tyler Perry was able to buy an island.

  5. @asmith: It’s not letting me reply up there. So I’ll just say it here.

    I’d be curious to see the numbers w racial and socioeconomic breakdowns. I think it’d be an interesting study, if feasible.

    I’d also be curious to see where y’all are seeing these shows at, as in where the theaters are located at… and if that factors in at all.

    • I’d like to see those numbers as well.

      I was going to qualify that I’ve seen most of the TP movies in Washington, DC; but that’s not true. I’ve seen most of them (as most of them came out when I was still in school) in Nashville, TN which isn’t DC black, but ain’t Wyoming white, either.

      • @asmith: I’d be curious to see them broken down against where the specific theaters are as well. I tend to catch more films in suburbia…

        And the only other places in America that are DC Black are Atlanta, the wild 100s in Chicago and Compton. *still on this laughing out loud ban or else i’d type it here.*

    • The theatre where we saw the lines snaking out of the theatre was in the ritzy area of the Central West End. The Chase Park Plaza theatre where only people with fat pockets can get a room or an apartment and a place that houses a steak house called the Tenderloin Room that charges an arm and a leg for a New York Strip. This same building has a rotating restaurant on the top level. My point: if you want to get an idea of what the number of black folks in your area may be, visit the local theatre on the opening night of a Tyler Perry movie. You will soon find out.

    • The one TP movie that I was drug to “The Family that Preys” (which I thought could have been a great movie if it were written and directed better) did not have any white people in the audience from what I saw. If there were some in there then it was maybe 1 or 2. This was at the nicest/newest movie theater in a small city in North Carolina. The city is 55% white and 37% black ( according to the 2000 census data so I don’t know how accurate that is)

    • Seems that TMCY is working with a couple false assumptions here:

      1. That you can’t get to $40 million in opening box office #’s without crossover appeal.

      2. That Tyler Perry’s audience is strictly churchy and/or ghetto folks.

      First of all, we can dispel the 1st assumption by googling. Also, before he made films, Tyler Perry plays were SELLING OUT huge theater venues (NOT shack theaters) in cities across the nation for MULTIPLE NIGHTS. If he’s packing venues like the Paramount Theater in Oakland and the Fox in Atlanta over multiple nights at tickets that cost $45-$65 each. You don’t think these same people are going to see him in a movie theater for $10?

      Might I add that TP got his film deals BECAUSE of the success of his video sales of his plays. In the early 2000’s, each of his plays on DVD were selling for $40. Read that again. $40. Minus the S&H. How do I know? Because I really, really wanted to buy one but couldn’t bring myself to spend that much on a DVD.

      Because the markup was so high (because he had deals with a small, black distribution company), the bootleg business for TP plays was ridiculous. Without telling on myself, let me just say this…Tyler had to do something quick to keep from losing control of his creations. So he went into business with Blockbuster. They began carrying his DVDs in their stores as rentals. Then Target came calling. Tyler switched production companies to mass produce his DVDs so he could sell them cheaper. The price went from $40 on his website to $12-14 in retail stores.

      THEN he signed a 7 picture movie deal to adapt his plays to films.

      So that’s what you’re seeing now.

      All the while, he was in talks with many stations to have a TV show. His negotiations started in mid-2000’s, but he turned Fox down because they were trying to get him to take the “church” out of the show.

      How do I know this? Because whenever he tours, he comes out at the end of his play to give his audience an update.

      Unlike most of his critics (who are johnny-come-latelys who JUST started paying attention when his films hit #1), I’ve been following Tyler for years…ever since my stylist played a Madea play for me while doing my hair.

      Which leads me to the 2nd assumption.

      I’m not religious. At all. I wasn’t raised in the church or the ghetto. I was raised in CA, TN and GA. I’ve seen Tyler Perry movies in all three of these states in different neighborhoods. Regardless of the type of neighborhood, the majority of the film audience is black – even in the Bay Area where blacks are the minority. It doesn’t matter if I go in the morning, afternoon or night on a weekday or the weekend. Black audiences.

      I’ve seen all of Tyler Perry’s plays and films, even the pre-Madea play that many don’t know he produced. I don’t like all of his plays or all of his films, but there’s enough entertainment value in them to keep me open-minded enough to see a new one. With the exception of The Family That Preys (and I may be wrong about that one), the same family is threaded throughout. People are hung up on the Madea character but she is the matriarch of the family. Why would TP get rid of her? All of the relatives in all of his plays are connected through her.

      I’m begging people who criticize Tyler Perry to at least study the man’s work/story beyond the couple films/plays they see all out of context. Either start from the beginning or don’t even bother. It’s like jumping in the middle of a 30 year-old soap opera and complaining about why the old people are there – because they have a history with the show and are the foundation of the fictional city, that’s why.

      For a change, I’d like to see some informed criticism of his work.

  6. Sister Toldja has posted a second entry on this same topic over at her blog today:

  7. I have to say that Spike is forgetting that he’s tossing stones from a glass penthouse. Spike has the same criticism for his own films when it comes to the writing that he is clowning TP for. Also, I’m not giving TP an unlimited amount of time to pass with what he’s putting out now. But for me I’m still waiting for him to build better. I’d expect the change that we want to see him perform will come at a time when he can financially do so with having to take a major financial hit. As such, that time for such a change is going to be up to him. I do hope he changes for the better before I have to make my decision.

  8. I saw the “family that preys” on a Sunday afternoon at Ward Parkway in South KC. The audience was mainly middled-aged people, about 50-50 white-black. Ward Parkway shopping center is kind of an odd place, there are multi-million mansions a few blocks up the street but the neighborhood gets a little scuzzy going south or east. Its an odd mix of ghetto and middle-aged suburbia. Kathy Bates was in the movie so I think she may have pulled in a little bit of a different audience.

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