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