A Tyler Perry academic conference applies highbrow criticism to a lowbrow empire

A Tyler Perry academic conference applies highbrow criticism to a lowbrow empire

Sometimes the secret purpose of academic conferences, roundtables, and symposia seems to be to make whatever subject they’re covering more substantive than it actually is. That particularly applies to academic conferences devoted to seeming pop ephemera, like last year’s University Of Chicago academic conference concerning The Jersey Shore. Part of my attraction to Northwestern University’s Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable (subtitle: “Perspectives On The Media Of Tyler Perry”) lies in the seeming incongruity of devoting sober academic analysis to films about a weed-smoking, sass-talking, whupping-delivering old woman played by a man in drag. But it would be a mistake to assume that just because Tyler Perry traffics in lowbrow entertainment that his oeuvre is not worthy of serious criticism or scholarship. 

Perry, after all, isn’t just the dominant black commercial filmmaker of our time; he’s the dominant black commercial filmmaker of all time, a one-man industry whose uncanny gift for discerning the emotional needs of his audience has made him a billionaire. Perry has cracked the code of commercial filmmaking like no filmmaker before him, black or white. In 2011, Forbes listed Perry as the highest-paid man in entertainment, having made $130 million in a single year. Perry has figured out a way to crank out modestly budgeted, almost invariably successful films, television shows, and plays at a pace no one else can match. Perry matters. His films matter. His aesthetic matters. His work has radically changed the landscape of black film. But is that a positive or negative development? 

By virtue of being an academic conference, Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable featured the liberal use of thousand-dollar terms like “hetero-normative,” but the word that reappeared the most was “ambivalence.” The passionate, invested black academics of the conference approached Perry’s fame, work, and cultural significance with profound ambivalence, particularly regarding his extraordinarily problematic treatment of gender. The women in Perry’s films read like a who’s-who of leading black actresses and cultural icons: Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Taraji P. Henson, Jill Scott, Sanaa Lathan, Alfre Woodard, and Gabrielle Union. He regularly gives meaty roles to gifted black actresses, but it comes at a steep cost. While it’s great that a popular and prolific filmmaker casts strong black women in lead roles, it’s also unfortunate, many at the conference held, that those high-profile roles invariably center films whose sexual politics remain stuck in the distant past.

Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable began with a screening of Madea’s Family Reunion, followed by a spirited group discussion and lunch. Then there was an afternoon screening of The Family That Preys, followed by an even more spirited discussion. The symposium concluded with an epic two-and-a-half-hour panel discussion where the formidable brain trust took dead aim at the toxic gender dynamics at the core of Perry’s oeuvre. 

The roundtable put Perry’s meteoric ascent in a specific cultural context, positing Perry as an explicitly Southern phenomenon (Atlanta, specifically) rooted equally in the black church and an urban theater circuit. The massive commercial success of Perry’s 2005 film, Diary Of A Mad Black Woman, shocked white audiences, to whom Perry was a complete unknown, and a questionably talented one at that. But Miriam Petty, an assistant professor of radio/TV/film and African-American studies who put together the roundtable, pointed out that the massive mansion where Diary takes place actually belonged to Perry, who was already a huge name in historically black spaces: the church, the barbershop, beauty shops, and an urban theater circuit far off the radar of white America. 

Before he took his shtick to the big screen, Perry diligently cultivated these bases. Stories abound of churches that would send multiple buses to transport parishioners to Perry’s wildly successful, genre-mashing plays. Perry continues to cater to these bases. According to the academics at the symposium, the mogul sent commercials to churches explicitly promoting Why Did I Get Married? as a form of ministry. But what exactly is Perry preaching to his vast and devoted audience? Perry is a true auteur whose obsessions and preoccupations recur from film to film, the most persistent and maddening being a profound fear and distrust of strong, educated, ambitious black women. Perry demonizes black businesswomen just as blatantly and unapologetically as he deifies older matriarchs like Madea or the saintly characters played by Alfre Woodard in The Family That Preys and Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson in Madea’s Family Reunion. 

There is a moment in The Family That Preys so telling that it was brought up repeatedly as the apogee of Perry’s need to humiliate women with the gall to flaunt their education and ambition. The film casts Sanaa Lathan as an ambitious married businesswoman wholly devoid of redeeming qualities and the faintest semblance of humanity. She’s pure evil, a heartless corporate striver who verbally emasculates and cuckolds her salt-of-the-earth construction-worker husband Rockmond Dunbar, all while squirreling away a small fortune in financial gifts from evil boss Cole Hauser, who is both her longtime lover and the secret father of a child Dunbar is dim-witted enough to assume his own. To add to the humiliation, Dunbar works for Hauser, and Lathan is so evil that she encourages Hauser to fire Dunbar so that she’ll have one more reason to leave him. (Though it’s never particularly clear why she hasn’t left him already, given her raging contempt for him and his basic decency.) 

Dunbar proves staggeringly oblivious to his wife’s infidelity until she comes right out and proudly boasts that Hauser is her man and the father of her child. At this point, the otherwise kindly and meek Dunbar backhands his wife with such force that she topples over the counter of the diner her mother (Woodard) runs. The entire film has been building to this moment, when the evil, castrating Lathan pushes her husband so far that he has no option but to explode with violence. In the packed theaters where the panelists first saw The Family That Preys Together, this climactic moment of domestic violence inspired responses ranging from enthusiastic applause to standing ovations. In Lathan, Perry created a character so transparently, unambiguously loathsome that audiences didn’t just welcome any comeuppance; they literally applauded a man smacking the shit out of a woman. This defining moment represents a core dynamic of Perry’s films taken to its ugly, violent extreme.  

One of the feminist critics on the panel pointed out that in a book credited to Madea, Perry writes that women can get away with saying things that men simply can’t, including statements that reinforce the patriarchy. If Madea’s speeches were delivered by a man not in drag, they’d easily come off as arrogant and chauvinistic, but put them in the mouth of a sassy old woman and they suddenly register as homespun, commonsense wisdom with an unmistakable Christian bent that further serves as cover for the regressive, sexist messages at the heart of Perry’s films. Part of what makes Perry’s work so fascinatingly messy is that it uses a weed-smoking, ex-con smartass to reinforce retrograde notions of conventional morality and gender roles. The panelists strongly believed that, behind her faux-outrageousness, Madea is a shill for the patriarchy, an unlikely social conservative whose prescription for every problem is a nuclear family that’s led by a strong man, supported by a woman who knows her place, with kids who better behave lest they end up on the receiving end of one of Madea’s liberally distributed ass-whuppings. 

For Daniel O. Black, a novelist and professor of English, the heart of Perry’s appeal lies in his work’s aspirational aspect. For him, working-class black audiences flock to Perry’s movies to experience “two hours of what they know they won’t actually have.” It’s wish-fulfillment writ large, an opportunity for audiences to lose themselves in a world where everyone is beautiful (especially the men; Perry objectifies the men in his movies much more aggressively than the women), no problem is so severe it can’t be solved by a few sage words from Madea, and clearly defined good invariably triumphs over clearly defined evil.  

No scene better epitomizes that wish-fulfillment than the preposterously over-the-top climax to Madea’s Family Reunion: a gaudy wedding fantasia involving beautiful people dressed as cherubs suspended dramatically from the ceiling, a seemingly life-sized re-creation of the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop, a poetry recitation from supporting player Maya Angelou, a song from Johnny Gill, and, most hilariously, a pair of muscular, well-oiled hunks dressed as angels. As quipped by E. Patrick Johnson, a professor of Performance and African-American Studies at Northwestern, the scene represents a “Pandora’s Box of queerness” from which not even the most hetero-normative of institutions—the straight Christian marriage, complete with vows in which the bride reveres her groom as “breathtaking reflection of God’s heart”—can escape intact. 

There’s nothing wrong with selling seductive fantasies of beauty, wealth, and triumph over adversity to audiences that have historically been ignored or ridiculed by Hollywood, but why do these fantasies have to be so sexist and regressive? The panelists at the final panel viewed Perry as a figure stuck in the past, a fundamentally conservative pop icon still holding on to outdated ideas about strong women, family structures, and gender roles. 

So while Perry has taken some intriguing chances over the past few years, from Alex Cross to For Colored Girls to Good Deeds, his attitudes toward women stubbornly refuse to evolve or change. One of the panelists volunteered to serve as a consultant on Perry’s films, but the mogul has become a massive commercial force specifically because his morality remains rooted in a conservative black church that’s stubbornly resistant to change. There are hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of loyal fans implicitly telling Perry that he’s right and should keep on playing Madea until he’s an actual senior citizen; why should he listen to highbrow critics and feminist and queer academics telling him he’s wrong? Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable began dry and academic, but grew in intensity and outrage until a glorious crescendo of the closing panel, where the academics’ visceral and intellectual criticism bordered on righteous rage. Will Perry ever change or evolve? Will his fans allow him to? Will a market he has mastered allow him to? The relatively modest grosses of his more challenging projects are not encouraging. 

Perry has an unparalleled gift for crafting narratives that resonate with his core audience. That extends to his own story, a Horatio Alger-like tale that catapulted him from a sexually abused, homeless high-school dropout to the pinnacle of wealth, fame, and achievement. Perry attributes his success to God’s intervention. By walking in faith, Perry went from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high. That faith is the cornerstone of both his films and his massive commercial success, but the interpretation of faith his films have offered again and again keep him attached to a regressive take on gender, sexuality, and family—and suspended in a state of seemingly permanent creative stasis.