The Problematic Tyler Perry

by Brian C. Johnson (Volume editor)
©2016 Monographs VI, 251 Pages


For the past decade or more, few Hollywood stars have experienced a more meteoric rise than Tyler Perry. As much as he is lauded by fans, Perry is panned by cultural critics who reject his work as overtly preachy and rife with racially stereotypical characterizations and controversial themes. This book explores the vast chasm between his fans’ adoration and the critical reception of his work: while some argue that Perry’s brand of «blackness» is little more than buffoonery, others claim he offers representations that are missing in entertainment choices, especially among niche audiences. He is applauded by some for offering films and television shows that are «good entertainment», while others label his work trashy. He can be seen either as an oracle whose morality plays provide a gospel message of family healing, or as an actor with a misaligned worldview. This book asks: what are we to do with the «problem» of Tyler Perry?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: My Problem with Perry
  • Section One: Audience Appreciation
  • Chapter One: Tyler Perry and William Shakespeare: Playwrights Who Reflect and Influence Society
  • Chapter Two: The Political Economy of Tyler Perry: Replicating Industry Ideals and Exploiting the Commodity Audience
  • Chapter Three: The Church of Tyler Perry: How Perry Created a Phenomenon
  • Chapter Four: Who’s Your Mammy? Tyler Perry and the Limits of Black Spectatorship
  • Section Two: Gender (Mis)Representations
  • Chapter Five: Playing with Gender, Queering Lines: Should We Be Mad at Madea?
  • Chapter Six: Tyler Perry as Madea: Homophobia Gets a Pass When It’s a Man in a Dress
  • Chapter Seven: (In)Visible Messages: Patriarchy in Tyler Perry’s Madea Films
  • Chapter Eight: Knight in Shining Blackness: Examining Performances of Black Masculinity in Tyler Perry Films
  • Section Three: Steroeotypicality
  • Chapter Nine: Diary of a Despondent Female: An Analysis of Female Characters in Tyler Perry’s Movies
  • Chapter Ten: I Can Be Misrepresented All By Myself
  • Section Four: Specific Works
  • Chapter Eleven: A Volatile Cocktail of Stereotypes: Black Feminist Reflections on Tyler Perry’s For Better or Worse
  • Chapter Twelve: The Tyler That Preys: Is Tyler Perry Creating New or Recycling Old Black Images?
  • Chapter Thirteen: Signifying Practices: Representations of Black Masculinity and Womanhood in Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (2013)
  • About the Contributors
  • Series index

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My Problem with Perry


Before I ever heard of the name Tyler Perry, I was introduced to his flamboyant alter ego named Madea while visiting a family member. Admittedly, I was enthralled by the homage to gospel music and the strong Christian message I was receiving. I appreciated hearing the music that had centered my identity since I was a small child. As a theatergoer, it was rare to experience “church” at an entertainment venue, let alone while watching a television screen in a living room.

At the conclusion of the performance, the writer, director, and star of the play came onto the stage. The face I recognized had emerged from beneath the pancake makeup, the fat suit, the flowered dress and silver wig. It was him—it was Tyler Perry—talking to the audience—to me—as if we had been old friends. By this time, I was already sold, but he did one more thing that hooked me once more on the line. He shared that the performance we had just witnessed would be available on DVD and he implored everyone not to buy a bootleg DVD but to get an official copy from his website. He explained that by buying illegal copies, we would be taking money away from the families of those involved in the performances, the people I had just come to love and appreciate just like they were my own family. I took the bait. I had already had a personal commitment against media piracy, and here was a superstar director thinking about “the little guy.” I became a Tyler Perry fan that day.

Soon, I had purchased my own legitimate copy of Madea’s Family Reunion and replayed it several times. I just couldn’t get enough of the estranged ← 1 | 2 → relationships that seemed to mirror the dysfunction in my own. Mr. Brown, Madea’s ultra-Christian neighbor with the ashy knees, could sing the house down as he mimicked the old-fashioned “hand-clapping, foot-stomping” Pentecostal church services I had participated in for most of my life.

I would soon devour I Can Do Bad All By Myself and solidify my love for anything Tyler Perry. That love would turn into fascination and ultimately into disappointment. That’s where I am now. By the time Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion was released as a feature film in 2006, I was tired—of the same repackaged material. I had begun to wonder why his name had to be on everything, why he had to be the writer, director, and star. Why was I seeing the same themes over and over again—black men as abusive and controlling, black women needing rescuing (perhaps from themselves more than their men), while the Christian values I had embraced were fodder for comic relief? By the time there was actually a family gathering in Reunion, I was turned off. That is, until this happened:

While at the reunion, Aunt Ruby (Georgia Allen), the family’s oldest living relative, gathers the entire family together at the site of the plantation where their progenitor had lived as a slave. A buxom singer beckons by singing “Pray on, just a little while longer, and everything is gonna be alright.” Aunt Ruby rings a bell that sits outside the slave shack. The family members seem to be oblivious to the presence of this important structure in their ancestral record. Ruby’s bell and their full-voiced cousin pull them from their frolicking. As the family’s youth gather around, Ruby asks, “Is this what we paid for?” A young boy inquires, “What is she talking about?” Aunt Myrtle (played by Cicely Tyson) and Aunt May (Maya Angelou) lecture the younger members of the family on the importance of reclaiming their heritage as proud black people who see themselves as more than drug dealers, gang bangers, and sexualized beings. The scene ends (elapsed time 01:21:13–01:26:10) as Myrtle instructs them to hug and unite as family and the elder matriarchs say “God bless you.” Perry had already recognized the responsibility he felt to give the younger generation solid content. In his concluding remarks on the DVD recording of the I Can Do Bad All By Myself stage play, Perry referenced the need to give “a little more serious stuff” to kids. He stated, “If they’re paying attention to all the silly stuff, let me give them something else; maybe they’ll pay attention to it.”

For Family Reunion, he kept that promise to give the younger generation something to chew on. Prior to that moment in the film, I had never given a standing ovation in the middle of a movie; those things are reserved for the end of the production. With this scene, Perry had done it again. I was a fan again! I was crying because here a filmmaker had used a fictional narrative to speak a truth to a dying generation, a truth that denied the mediated images of black youth. Myrtle questions, “What happened to us? Who are you? Do you know who you are? What happened to the pride and the dignity and the love and respect that we had for one another? Where did it go? And how do we get it back?” She delivered ← 2 | 3 → this treatise from the steps of the slave shack of the ancestors of this family who tilled the soil until they could earn enough to buy the land [and their freedom]. Myrtle’s charge to young black men was to “Take your place! Your sons and daughters need you!” She continued to affirm their formidable heritage: “You were sold off and had no choice, yes, but now it’s time to stay. Take your place! Now! Starting now! Starting now!” She turned her attention to the young black women: “You are more than your thighs and your hips. You are beautiful, strong, powerful. I want more from you! Take your place!” The fact that this sermon was being delivered by Miss Jane Pittman herself was certainly not lost on me. In the 1970s, Tyson had become a movie star by being relegated to the roles of slave wench and maid that had been the lot of black female actresses at the time. So enthralled was I that I was willing, at that time, to forgive Perry for the previous scene where he (in character as Uncle Joe) and several other elder family members were ogling the younger women’s buttocks and entertained the need for Viagra. I learned later that this crucial scene was unscripted. Perry wanted Tyson and Angelou to speak freely and from their hearts. With that brave act, for me, Perry was elevated to a venerable place as griot (wizened community storyteller). Neither was it lost on me that Madea was silent during this scene. For that, I was even more grateful.

After Family Reunion I returned to watching his plays, which became an exercise in tedium. Back again were the stock characters and storylines, and by now, the music had become banal. I had begun to introduce my children to the plays as well. His was the only black-centric offerings that felt safe enough for full family consumption—that is, for a little while. Soon, Aunt Bam and other characters, including Madea, were promoting marijuana use and viewers were regularly being reminded of Madea’s past as a stripper. These women quoted scripture. Well, Madea misquoted scripture and preached godly tomes all the while celebrating unrighteous behavior for comedic effect. Take, as an example, Madea’s conversation with Cora (Tamela Mann) and Brenda in Diary of a Black Woman: The Play. Madea assumes the cadence of a black Pentecostal preacher (with full-on organ accompaniment) as she shares how women could keep peace in their homes in the face of an abusive husband:

MADEA: Jesus was the Word.
CORA: Yeah …
MADEA: And before him, nobody could speak because He was the Word.
CORA: That’s right.
MADEA: The Bible says in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the God was the Word and the Word was God. Am I right about it?
CORA: That’s right. That’s right.
MADEA: Now Jesus was speaking words [Cora agrees], so if the Word spoke words, the creator of the alphabet and all the words spoke words, He spoke words in past, present, and future tense. Peace be still. In the ← 3 | 4 → beginning, peace was already still. He just had to fulfill the prophecy; stay with me.
CORA: Alright, Mabel, go on, girl!
MADEA: Jesus said, “Peace be still.” And peace was still. And if you want peace right now, peace is still in the future. Peace be still. Peace was still. Peace is still in the future. Peace be still. Peace was still. [she pulls out her gun] Peace is made of steel. [she begins rocking to show her spiritual uplift] You don’t believe this is a peacemaker? Your husband ain’t acting right? And, you don’t know what to do? All you got to do is pull it out, and there will be … [the audience yells “PEACE!!”] Ahh, it’s like a bullet shut up in my gun! [Mimicking the scripture in Jeremiah 20:9 “… his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones …” “Your boss is working on your nerves, and you know you doing your job? He just wants to mess with you; pull it out and lay it on his desk and there will be [“PEACE!”].

Madea begins to “shout” [a spiritual dance common in black Pentecostalism]. As she dances, Madea “drops it like it’s hot” [a common hip-hop dance that has sexual connotations] and soon lifts her dress to show her ample, yet bare breasts [remember, Madea is Perry in a fat suit]. At this, the sound of thunder (as if a warning from the Lord) causes a break in her behavior, to which Cora (who has been cheering her on up to this point) challenges, “Get her! Get her! You need to get somewhere and sit down, Mabel. Playing with the Lord. You too old for that.” Madea exits the stage.

This mixture of the sacred and the comedic had grown all too commonplace. Perry, for many, is considered a Christian entertainer and writer. Yet, the fact that he constantly makes fun of the Bible for jokes borders on blasphemy. In I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Madea speaks with foster child Jennifer about how to pray:

I was doubled-minded about whether I trusted Perry as a writer. His schizophrenic writing confused me. I wondered whether he was “the real thing” or a flash in the pan. I was dubious about what he would do with words that were not his own creation. When it was announced that he would take on the weight of adapting Ntozake Shange’s 1970s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” I questioned whether Perry had the chops to do her powerful poem any justice. In a review I wrote for Christian Spotlight on Entertainment (http://www.christiananswers.net), I chronicled my surprise at the quality of the adaptation:

Additionally, For Colored Girls reintroduces the world to acclaimed poet and playwright, Ntozake Shange, whose brilliant poetry inspired the film (adapted for the screen by Perry). Shange’s work, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow I Enuf” (written in the 1970s)[,] chronicled the Black female experience in the gritty, urban jungle telling stories of rape, incest, domestic violence, love lost, found, and lost again, drug abuse, crime, pregnancy, and more. Perry adeptly uses Shange’s words throughout the movie, rather than reinterpreting them for the contemporary audience. While a considerable strength of this film, using Shange’s poetry as dialogue may confuse the novice moviegoer and certainly Perry’s usual younger audiences, much like those who were taken aback by the 1990s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes)[,] which used the original 16th-century language of the Bard.

Some have charged Perry as a backslider for his dramatic shifts of late. His theatrical roots are Christian; it can be said that it was his Christian audiences who made Perry a national figure, but many of his loyal fans have felt abandoned in the last couple of films he has created. The coarse language and mature subject material of films like Why Did I Get Married Too and I Can Do Bad All By Myself and The Family that Preys have turned many Christians away from his films; For Colored Girls outdoes them all—brief nudity, violence, language, rape, wanton sexuality, abortion, murder—definitely not your average ← 5 | 6 → Christian fare. In fact, some may find offense in the characterization of Christianity in the film. One character, Alice (Goldberg)[,] is a religious fanatic who condemns everyone to hell for the slightest infraction that she deems unworthy, even to the point of trying to perform exorcisms on her daughters.

My own bipolarity toward Perry is obvious. That is why this collection is titled The Problematic Tyler Perry. The title is reflective of my own questioning of his value as an artist and the import of his corpus of work. As critical as I can be of his work, I am a proud owner of his entire collection. I own every single one of his DVDs (the plays and movies). I cannot stomach his televisions shows. The essays in this collection follow a similar pattern; they range from outright love and respect to criticism.


VI, 251
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Blackness entertainment Black spectatorship Performance of Black masculinity
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VI, 251 pp.

Biographical notes

Brian C. Johnson (Volume editor)

Brian C. Johnson is a faculty member in the Department of Academic Enrichment at Bloomsburg University. He is a doctoral candidate in communications media and instructional technology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.


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