jump to navigation

Understanding Tyler Perry, the Phenomenon April 12, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , ,

Posted at Visual Inquiry, the research blog for visual studies at the Annenberg School at Penn. Many thanks to Mark Anthony Neal for linking to this post.

Watching a Tyler Perry movie is a strange and ecstatic experience. Perry’s desire for shenanigans, inanity and heightened emotions always makes for an entertaining evening. But his films are in a strange in-between space: between melodrama and traditional drama, between alternative cinema and Hollywood style, and between black authenticity and pure elitism. Through it all, what vexes film scholars, especially critics, is how style, content, auteurism and culture clash and miss each other in Tyler Perry’s films. Understanding Perry now is crucial, especially as he embarks into new cinematic territory, most notably in next year’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

Are Tyler Perry’s movies “bad,” and, whether yes or no, why should we care?

Critics seem unable to comprehend Perry’s films

If we believe Metacritic, and I think the site has a lot of merit, the short answer is: yes, Tyler Perry’s movies are bad. His average Metacritic score is 46.5, and it’s remarkably consistent. Perry’s films rest firmly between 40-60, Metacritic’s “so-so” range. He never goes above it, and only once has he gone below it. It’s clear (white) critics are divided, but mostly confused. Sure, he has perennial advocates, most notably Entertainment Weekly. But more “serious” publications like the New York Times appear startlingly ambivalent. The Timesreview of Why Did I Get Married Too claims: “…it’s a Tyler Perry movie, with a little something for everyone, as long as you’re not expecting too much.” Neither do critics, it’s clear.

Tyler Perry is important; that’s obvious. What isn’t so obvious is if we should take him seriously. How do we even evaluate Tyler Perry? Who is Tyler Perry?

I’m going to propose four ways to evaluate Perry, ending up on the one I find the most useful: style, theme, marketing and culture. Perry is phenom, and he is neither savior nor demon.


A colleague of mine, keen on film form, basically told me after seeing Perry’s most recent flick: why do we put ourselves through this? (paraphrasing). Her basic point was Perry’s films are so sloppily written, acted and edited, they don’t warrant the audiences they attract, and they’re certainly not worth the amount they cost (now well upwards of $10 million each).

She has a point. Why, for $20 million, does Why Did I Get Married Too have so many holes and “flaws” (even though much more expensive films like Avatar too have moments of bad writing)? There are numerous instances. At one point in the film Malik Yoba seriously accuses Janet Jackson of having never cried over the death of their son. In the narrative his accusation is supposed to prove how emotionally deranged she is (which I’ll talk about later). Sounds reasonable, right? But wait, the climax of the first installment, Why Did I Get Married, has Janet Jackson doing what? Crying over the death of her son! Has Perry read his own scripts? Perry’s narratives inevitably bring up the question “why?” and not in the arty way independent films strive for. In one scene, Jill Scott’s husband finally gets a new job but finds out from his coworker that Scott asked her horrible ex-husband to help him get him get work. A coworker tells Scott’s husband the exact home address of her ex, even though, seconds earlier, he could barely remember the ex-husband’s name! Huh? Multiple times, characters behave badly without motivation or act irrationally without cause.

Jill Scott and husband spend an awful long time entering a luxurious house

That’s the narrative. What about the style? What’s interesting — and vexing — about Perry is his style lies awkwardly between Hollywood and “alternative” (or independent or even “Third” cinemas), striving for the former and sometimes falling into the latter. There are moments that clearly defy classic form and yet look like Hollywood. The shots dwell too long, cuts come too late, conversation scenes putter about without any direction. In Why Did I Get Married Too an early scene has all the couples arriving at their luxury Bahamas house. Jill Scott and her husband are the first to arrive. Perry has the camera following them, from behind, throughout the house for several minutes, quite a long time, without many cuts and no meaningful dialogue (nothing moves the plot forward). This is a standard big-budget tracking shot — a protagonist enters a new, often luxurious surrounding, and we follow them from behind as they check it out — but told in a way closer to narration in art cinema. In most Hollywood films, the shot is quicker and punctuated by informative dialogue. In Love Actually, when Prime Minister Hugh Grant first enters 10 Downing Street, his chief of staff guides him to his office. As they walk through the halls, we meet new characters and learn new things. Perry just has his characters walk. The director gives us countless “errors” like this, which are very subtle and very much about the current conventions of viewing.

Hugh Grant blitzes through 10 Downing, getting information and orienting the audience expediently

Is Perry, then, a bad filmmaker with a big budget? Not necessarily. I’ll soon answer whether Tyler Perry is deliberately messing with Hollywood convention. But first, context!

Perry, more so than any other black filmmaker living today, is the heir to Oscar Micheaux. Around the 1980s and 1990s, Spike Lee was thought to be Micheaux’s heir, but Lee’s project is very different and his audience is as well. Micheaux worked for over two decades, mostly the twenties and thirties, making films starring and for the black community. Working outside of Hollywood because he had to, Micheaux made films about bourgeois black lifestyles (not exclusively) that, like Perry’s, used melodrama to tell narratives about race in America. Contrary D.W. Griffith’s classical style, inaugurated by Birth of a Nation, Micheaux saw Hollywood as unwelcoming to non-racist black narratives (which it was). He followed a different set of conventions, intended for different audiences.

Indeed, the first reference to Micheaux I could find in the Times, of his last film The Betrayal, in 1948, points to similarities in critical reception:

“Mr. Micheaux, unfortunately, does not present his ideas clearly and the picture is often confusing. Some of the most dramatic lines and sequences are so gauche to provoke embarrassed laughter. The Betrayal is further handicapped by sporadically poor photography and consistently  amateurish performances…”

Toward the end of Why Did I Get Married Too, something strange happened in my theater. The audience clearly laughed not at a joke in the film but at the film’s writing, something I’d never experienced before. Toward the end — SPOILER ALERT — after Janet Jackson’s husband dies, she implores her friends to resolve the problems in their own marriages: infidelity, lack of trust, dishonesty. Within 5 seconds, all three couples kiss and make up, just like that! It was ridiculous, spectacularly bad directing and writing. But the audience wasn’t duped.

Is Perry’s sloppiness a deliberate challenge to the Hollywood style? I would say yes, but the truth is Perry is more conventional than Micheaux. It’s possible to read his films as counter-cinema or a kind of American Third cinema, and I’ve heard those arguments made. In truth, though, he wants mainstream acceptance. A film like The Family that Preys, with its all-star Kathy Bates-Aflre Woodard duo, only gets made because Perry actually wants to be taken “seriously.” His friendship with (and desire to be) Oprah is about more than convenience and money. His films come close to Hollywood, but can’t quite make it.


Still Perry is one of a handful of black filmmakers — including Antoine Fuqua, John Singleton, Spike Lee and now Lee Daniels — who can actually raise money for wide-release films (and even for some of the above it is hard: Lee went to Italy to finance Miracle at St. Anna).

Within this sphere of films, can we see Perry as making a serious contribution? I’d like to say yes, but then I think about crazy Janet Jackson.

Janet Jackson’s performance in Too is explicitly insane, and it’s hard to read it as anything other than a caricature of the uptight black professional woman out of touch with traditional values (family, heterosexuality, marriage)

Before I get to Crazy Janet, however, let me first start by giving the pro-Perry case.

Racial representation is complicated and knows few boundaries. Black film studies often concerns itself with  how black people are represented, and using this standard, Perry does make a contribution. Perry, as mentioned, follows in a distinct tradition of melodrama. This is sometimes terribly obvious, as in the trailer for Why Did I Get Married Too, which ends with the theme song from the classic soap opera The Young & the Restless (PS – Isn’t painfully clear Tyler Perry should write a soap opera?). Yet it’s in the films too: in the exaggerated acting, the sometimes ridiculous plot lines, and clearly delineated villains and heroes. Perry traffics in other traditions as well — the church musical, most visibly — all of which play very well with black audiences. Yet Perry isn’t the only one making black melodrama. Dozens of B-movies and straight-to-DVD flicks come out yearly trafficking in the same genre. What makes Perry special is his ability to sell it well (I’ll talk about marketing next), and for that, he deserves credit. His success has reminded Hollywood of the usefulness of the black dollar — much like Do the Right Thing did in 1989.

What about Crazy Janet? Perry’s Crazy Janet syndrome became clear to me watching Janet Jackson lose her mind in his latest film. It points to larger thematic issues in his oeuvre. My colleague (the film critic) first keyed me into this issue: Perry’s portrayal of black women. She finds in Perry a consistent dismissal of black professional women: they are, to be crude, irrational “bitches” who berate their men and often are bad mothers or have poor family values. In The Family That Preys, I was surprisingly angered by Sanaa Lathan’s character, who desires the “white boss” for seemingly no reason, is irrationally vicious toward her working-class go-getter husband, and even seems to hate her own children. Gabrielle Union as high-powered lawyer in Daddy’s Little Girls only softens after she is basically willed into submission by, yet again, an earnest working-class man. What makes Why Did I Get Married Too bad melodrama is its gender imbalance: in each relationship, it is the working black woman’s fault: Janet Jackson is a cold professor who pushes away her loving husband, Sharon Leal is a lawyer who unreasonably cheats on her loving husband, and Tasha Smith is a loud-mouthed cynic who berates…her loving husband! Only Jill Scott, who plots behind her loving husband’s back, is really noble, and she chooses not to work (even as her family needs the money)! There are counter-examples, of course, but a trend emerges.

Taraji P. Henson’s character in I Can Do Bad All By Myself is an interesting case: an independent, “real” women who needs to learn motherhood and heterosexual partnership

Perry’s women problem is only one of his many issues. There is, for sure, his gay problem. Why Did I Get Married Too has a scene where Janet Jackson tries to embarrass her husband at work by bringing him a fake-birthday cake with a dancing “queen” on top of it, in order to undercut his masculinity. Stereotypical gays show up in the first scenes of the first installment too. Most of his other films are characterized by an unsurprising blindness to the diversity within the black community. Both his blindness to and the curious inclusion of gays in his films are to me moments when the suppression of his own (homo)sexuality surfaces, as it does occasionally, and subtly, in his interviews.

I’ve said it many times: I’m not the representation police, and I’m not here to police black images. There’s a very consistent history in black film of creating difficult and transgressive images, and while I’m not putting Perry in the tradition of Melvin Van Peebles and John Singleton, I’m suggesting perhaps we might think of him that way.

Perry’s films are primarily ways to talk about black progress and authenticity in a “post-racial” world, and they absorb all the baggage involved in that project. They are moral tales about maintaining traditional family structures (including, usually, men at the head), the importance of the church and the elders, even at the exclusion of gays — and not always, though sometimes, of others: like loose and lost women, drug users, etc.

All of this, however, is not terribly interesting. It’s not something we haven’t seen before, and it may, in fact, be behind the times. So how does he sell it?


Spike Lee said it, at a non-publicized appearance here at Penn, but he wasn’t the only one: asked what he thinks of Tyler Perry, he replied, in so many words, “he’s a good businessman.”

This is meant as a dig, in case you missed the snark screaming from the statement above.

The Spike Lee-Tyler Perry divide is artificial, but revealing

Tyler Perry’s journey to mainstream success, told in the media as a rags-to-riches story, starts with the careful cultivation of an audience of churchgoers on the chitlin circuit in the Southeast and North. When he searched for money from the major studios in 2004 to make Diary of a Mad Black Woman, he was denied by white studio executives. Perry markets himself as a misunderstood outsider, disliked by critics (among whom there are virtually no black women, his target audience) and the black elite (who, embodied by Spike Lee, see his work as cooning). The divide is rhetorical, since he has a few fans among critics and more than a few advocates in the black bourgeois.

“My entire effort has been grass roots,” Perry once told the AP. “The base, the hardworking people who are just really, really good people who can relate to (Madea). The highbrow? They don’t get it.”

Perry’s marketing ideology brings us back to Micheaux, who, like Perry created a studio outside Hollywood and small market as well, employing black Americans in an industry that, statistically speaking, excludes them, both behind and in front of the camera, below and above the line.

Perry, then, deserves credit for reviving the Micheaux model, and, at times, the Micheaux politics.

Why is Perry successful? Certainly his “working class” politics is part of the equation, but it isn’t the whole truth. Perry’s films are as much about the fantasy of black privilege which is nonetheless “real” (a more believable Best Man) than about “hardworking people.” Moviegoers can expect authenticity from a Perry film, alongside the drama, which offers an important antidote to the otherwise “empty” black images in mainstream film: the likes of Halle Berry and Will Smith, marketed as much to whites as black people.

It’s no wonder media stories about Perry frame his as more of a businessman than an artist, and it’s not only because his films have grossed (staggeringly) nearly half a billion dollars in just five years (not even counting the TV shows). In his marketing persona Perry finds redemption, a clean David-and-Goliath narrative worthy in itself.

While the “auteur-as-marketer” label is an appropriate frame for evaluating Tyler Perry, I think it misses the aforementioned stylistic slippages and representational anomalies: it misses the peculiar experience of watching a Tyler Perry film.

AS A PHENOMENON (Culture): Redeeming Mr. Perry

What Tyler Perry represents is a phenomenon in a specific moment in black history: an auteur-entrepreneur making a cinematic contribution revealing the problems in our media landscape and our unmet cinematic desires. Perry, at his core, shows us what our current media system is lacking and where black cultural politics lie today.

Hollywood’s Failure to Make and Market

Hollywood forever seems to embrace/deny the black market. There are times (the early 90s) when they do, and times (the 2000s) when they don’t. Perry reminded Hollywood to pay attention, a claim he often makes himself. That Perry’s movies are “bad” only suggests the demand for quality black cinema. A film like Death at a Funeral is Hollywood’s attempt to address the gap. When Perry stops influencing Hollywood, he will lose his cultural power. He explicitly wants to influence Hollywood.

The Communal Nature of the Theater Experience

I will make the case that Tyler Perry’s films need to be seen with people, and preferably, in the theater. A lot of films are like this, especially ones marketed to minority communities and women. Perry reminds us how much call-and-response is involved in movie-watching. Once again, he isn’t the first. Stephanie Dunn, in her book Baad Bitches and Sassy Supermamas, reminds us of the communal experience of watching blaxploitation films in the 1970s. If Perry loses this cultural aspect of his films, he may jeopardize his raison d’etre.

The Peculiar and Particular Two-ness of Post-Racial America

The stylistic oddities in Tyler Perry films, the very reason critics can’t make heads-or-tails of them, are significant. They reveal, I argue, a 21st century form of Micheaux’s “two-ness,” as J. Ronald Green argues Micheaux takes from DuBois, the curious case of being black and American. It is curious to be black and American today: some representations are embraced by the mainstream, and others are specifically denied. Perry’s stylistic dance with Hollywood — his embrace of fantasy but denial of classical continuity — embodies this tension.

The Persistent Allure of Authenticity

Watching the premiere of Treme, I was reminded, as I am regularly, of the persistent appeal of authenticity. In a world with so many identities in the media, it is comforting to see something you know you’ll understand and relate to. Authenticity in media is always a construction, and usually a pretty boring one, but its nonetheless alluring and particular instantiations — how popular authentic images look in specific times and places — are worthy of further investigation.

If ever Tyler Perry ceases to engage these ideas, he will cease to be Tyler Perry. Perry’s value is as a site with which to view these issues, a person who, more than anyone else, produces/directs/writes/acts in ways that mobilize anxieties about media and culture today.

Tyler Perry is at the height of his media power. His ability to round up an incredible cast for For Colored Girls — Anika Noni Rose, Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Mariah Carey, Kerry Washington, Loretta Devine, Phylicia Rashad and Macy Gray (whew!) — only confirms him as the center, if there is one, of black culture. If he understands his role in our mediascape, it is a position he’ll retain. Until, of course, the culture changes, as it always and inevitably will.


1. MPG - April 13, 2010

Wow. So I’m gonna need some time to digest this one. There’s no doubt that the phenomenon requires thinking about… but it sort of reminds me of trying to parse George W Bush speeches. Why waste your time?

Now, the *social* phenomenon surrounding him is interesting to me. What he represents about the black culture industry at this moment intrigues me. In short, all of what you ably discuss here.

Kudos, AJC.

2. MPG - April 13, 2010

Oh, but please don’t put Perry, Micheaux, and DuBoisian double-consciousness together, I might havta cut ya.

Aymar Jean Christian - April 13, 2010

The initial title for this post was “Tyler Perry and the Issue of ‘Quality'”… I think there are problems with taking Tyler Perry seriously as a filmmaker; there really is a lack of intelligence on his part that makes comparisons to Micheaux and DuBois more than a little vexing. Still, is there any doubt he’s following in the Micheaux tradition? We like to talk about Spike and Oscar because they make “quality” political films, but I’m not sure the comparison is the best or most productive one.

You know I always want your thoughts MPG!

3. MPG - April 13, 2010

I’ve become an enormous fan of your blog, AJC. Not only because you are kind enough to reply to me, but also because you cover such an array of topics with such aplomb. I hope this blog yields a million good things for you… including your dissertation!

Aymar Jean Christian - April 13, 2010

Thanks! That means a lot coming from you.

4. MySpace | The Midland Millionaire - April 13, 2010

[…] Who Is Tyler Perry? Understanding a Phenomenon « Televisual […]

5. Sex Addiction | Dr. Adina McGarr-Knabke - April 13, 2010

[…] Understanding Tyler Perry, the Phenomenon « Televisual […]

6. Jackie - April 14, 2010

I came across your blog via Marc Anthony Neal and wanted to thank you for your insightful analysis of Tyler Perry. Like many others, I’ve been alternately fascinated as well baffled by his rise within the industry. On one hand, I do believe he’s tapping into a market that otherwise is ignored by Hollywood. On the other, I cringe at so many of the tropes that litter his work; don’t even get me started with his views on professional Black women. To be honest, I find that both he and Spike Lee have very similar problems with Black women that they attempt to work out in their films. They’re not all that far apart in this regard, in my opinion.

And when news came out that he was on board to direct “For Colored Girls,” let’s just say I and just about everyone I knew emitted a very loud primal scream.

Aymar Jean Christian - April 14, 2010

I didn’t so much let out a primal scream as a gasp and a laugh. I’m happy someone with as much marketing pull as he nabbed “For Colored Girls,” and I’m even happier Shange is penning the script (although it seems like the concept is Perry). Still, I’m trying to not dismiss Perry outright but find out a way to make him useful. If I don’t, the $500 million elephant in the room just sucks up all the air!

Jackie - April 14, 2010

I hear you. ;) I really do want to see him become ‘useful’ as you say because the potential is there. He’s got a studio. He’s put people to work – the ingredients are in his hands. The question remains if he’s willing to let go and let other people play in the sandbox (which both you and another poster address below with regards to his need for total control).

Interestingly enough, I think is his most effective film is “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” because his treatment of the women in the story doesn’t feel like such an indictment. If anything, being able to see a woman rage (and almost lose herself in it) and then come out of it to something better felt more authentic than it does in his later films and Madea was used to better effect.

I’ll try to be a little more kind about his hands being “For Colored Girls” or at least more open minded but it’s damn hard, if only because I sit here wondering why no one gave Stacy Dash or Casi Lemmons a call to sit in on it. The fact that Shange is penning the script gives me some bit of relief.

(I have to remember to hip my friends to your blog because I really enjoy the level of the discourse here).

Aymar Jean Christian - April 14, 2010


That is the big question, isn’t it? Why didn’t Shange give it to Dash or Lemmons? I’m sure more than a few black woman directors asked for it. My only guess is that Perry’s broad base of support, his “working class” audience, appealed to her, both ideologically and financially. Perhaps Lemmons and Dash are too close to critics and the academy.

We’ll know soon enough!

7. Daniel Bailey - April 14, 2010

It is OK to analyze the Tyler Perry “phenomenon”. But I would not take it too seriously. Tyler Perry is, I offer, an “untrained” playwright. He has the keen sensibility to be able to discern the “playwright form” without understanding the intracies or being able to construct the “playwright form” that can be labeled as the science/art in the traditional sense of the craft. It is apparent that the man is a near genius, if in no other way that he has a mind that has a voluminous amount of stories that he can draw upon and bring to actualization by way of his artistry and entrprenuership. These are fast-paced projects without the scrutiny of checking the “small stuff”. His anxiety at this stage of his development is to get the project out of the door and onto the screens to help him pay for this dream he has set upon to build. His true supporters realize this. They are aware of the inconsistencies, but are willing to tolerate these flaws, rather than buying into the sterotypical images provided by “Hollywood”.

My major concern with Perry is his seemingly “insecurity” in must having total control over all his projects (directing, writing, producing, acting, storylines) and I await the day when he will feel secure enough to allow opportunities for others in those areas described. It ain’t easy being successful going up against the likes of “Hollywood”, the industry that is undoubtedly the most detrimental to the development of a mature and prosperous Black culture here in America.

Aymar Jean Christian - April 14, 2010

Wow, great insights. I agree re: checking the small stuff, and you must be right that his supporters realize the flaws. They’re all over the place.

Yes, Perry’s insistence on total control is his Achilles heel, though he isn’t alone. A lot of successful directors think their way is best and no one can tell them otherwise!

8. Marquis - April 14, 2010

Great opinion piece. I agree with you on every point. I would also like to add a conversation piece that I had with a friend after seeing the movie. I enjoy Tyler’s individuality and attempts at filmmaking. There is a place for him and these stories and he is definitely necessary in today’s hollywood that does not develop or create compelling black stories.

My assessment to my friend was that after watching all of Perry’s movies, I get the sense that he is a champion for his male characters, while despising/hating his female characters. The Janet Jackson depiction in why did I get married too, along with all of the other female characters leads me to believe that Tyler Perry has a deep rooted hatred for black women that he needs to purge in his films.

9. Best Links of the Week « The Thirty Mile Woman - April 15, 2010

[…] Understanding Tyler Perry […]

10. Sandra Roberts - April 16, 2010

Your analysis is too complicated. Tyler Perry is a genius of this day and age because he writes the truth. His jokes are funny because they are true. His plots are outrageous because they are true. He makes a lot of money because people enjoy watching something honest, for a change. I am a white woman, with a degree in English literature, and the Classic literature of Greece and Rome. Tyler’s plays and movies follow those simple truths. Your critique is so complex, it loses itself into a creative world of meaningless jabber.

Aymar Jean Christian - April 16, 2010

I appreciate your opinion. You make some good points. However, I think if you talked to some — not all, but some — black women or gay men, they would say there’s nothing true about how Tyler Perry portrays them, at least in some movies. Tasha Smith’s character in the WDIGM movies is a complete caricature of a “bitchy” black woman. She has no real motivations or emotions *except* to berate men. Do you know anyone like that? I mean, my mom’s a bit cranky, but even she has her reasons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: