Why white critics’ fear of engaging Tyler Perry is stifling honest debate

Why white critics’ fear of engaging Tyler Perry is stifling honest debate

At the end of March, Temptation: Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor hit theaters, bringing the number of films written and directed by Tyler Perry to 13 in just over seven years. Like Perry’s films always do, Temptation dropped into theaters without being screened in advance for critics, then barreled to a box-office triumph despite savage reviews.

But Temptation isn’t just another inept, inelegant Tyler Perry film. In fact, years from now, we may look back on Temptation as the loose thread that catalyzed the unraveling of Perry’s prominence. That could be wishful thinking, but the critical response to Temptation suggests a genuine sea change in how Perry’s work is perceived. For the first time, white critics are taking earnest swings at the Perry piñata. 

In the days following Temptation’s release, a few white writers on prominent online platforms took Perry to task for the nauseating subtext of his film’s “twist” ending. (By this time, I imagine most of the people who wanted to see Temptation have seen it, but anyone averse to spoilage should stop reading here.) Temptation concludes with a troubling epilogue in which Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is seen in a pharmacy owned by her ex-husband Brice (Lance Gross). She’s there picking up her HIV medication, which she must now take after cheating on Brice with a man who infected her. Brice has since remarried a more virtuous Christian woman who loves him for his goodness—which apparently includes offering deep discounts on his ex-wife’s HIV meds, because I can’t imagine why else Judith would subject herself to this indignity rather than Googling the nearest Walgreens. 

Mike Ryan of The Huffington Post was the first to seize on the film’s awful implication: HIV is a disease that infects the immoral, and Judith deserves her infection because she cheated on her husband. Ryan writes, “Either Perry believes that if you cheat on your partner, you deserve a terrible disease or he believes that the people he hopes will pay money to see Tyler Perry’s Temptation believe that if you cheat on your spouse, you deserve a terrible disease. I can’t decide which is worse.” Louis Peitzman of BuzzFeed wrote his own takedown, which acknowledges Ryan’s piece and builds on it by dissecting Perry’s prior use of HIV as a narrative weapon in 2010’s For Colored Girls: “By offering a version of reality in which people are either Good or Evil, Tyler Perry’s soapbox may do more harm than good.” Lindy West of Jezebel contributed another outraged missive shortly thereafter: “I’m starting to believe that Tyler Perry isn’t just artless—he’s reprehensible.”

It isn’t unusual for a critical hive mind to form, but the way this particular pile-on came together is noteworthy, and suggests a deeper hostility to Perry’s work that extends far beyond Temptation. Online content thrives on uniqueness, and there’s a premium on the irresistible clickiness of providing the most original, counterintuitive, or contrarian take on a subject. So it’s not every day that a writer from a platform like BuzzFeed essentially says “Here’s this thing a guy from HuffPo wrote, and here’s me saying the exact same thing a few days later.” Differentiating the content didn’t matter here, because these essays about Temptation’s ending aren’t meant to say something new or different about Perry’s work. They’re meant to say something old and established about Perry’s work that, prior to Temptation, white critics have been careful not to say: Tyler Perry’s movies aren’t just bad, they’re insidious.  

Perry’s films have been scrutinized plenty, but the white writers who dominate film criticism have offered analyses that, while largely negative, skip across the surface and ignore the depth. It’s difficult to imagine a review of, say, Spring Breakers that doesn’t at least flick at the movie’s underlying messages and cultural ramifications. But even as Perry’s films have had criticism heaped on them, he’s had the luxury of being bashed solely for his films’ hamfisted writing, paint-by-numbers plotting, and visual blandness. Never before Temptation have this many white critics taken care to blast the troublesome, underlying message of a Perry film, completely independent of its artistic or technical shortcomings.

Temptation isn’t the first of Perry’s films with a jaw-droppingly offensive subtext, it just has a specific jaw-droppingly offensive subtext that makes white critics feel like they’re on solid enough ground to read Perry the riot act. Perry’s movies have always been offensive in their vicious portrayals of black men, showing black life through a misandric lens that implicitly attributes the broader ills of black America to the moral failings of black men. Perry’s first film, Diary Of A Mad Black Woman (which he wrote, but didn’t direct) wasn’t bashful about setting the Perry agenda early on: Madea (Perry) and Helen (Kimberly Elise) attempt to destroy the home of Helen’s cartoonishly cruel ex-husband. Madea, wielding a chainsaw, exclaims, “This is for every black woman who’s ever had a problem with a black man!” But Perry’s films often hold black women in as much contempt as black men. Diary has an anti-feminist message, as another man shows up to teach Helen that she was right about needing a man to complete her, she just chose the wrong one. To complete his problematic trinity, Perry tosses in his most famous character, the mammy-echoing Madea, as a black female grotesque.

It’s fascinating to read criticism of that film now, because the reviews show that many prominent white critics took issue early on; they weren’t just disapproving of bad, individual filmmaking choices, they seemed uncomfortable with the Perry gestalt. But such sentiments are glossed over for more immediate technical concerns. For instance, the Diary review written by Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly makes no effort to hide his uneasiness with the premise, which finds Helen’s husband Charles (Steve Harris) heartlessly evicting her from the home they share so he can move in his mistress, who is far lighter-skinned than Helen (a detail Gleiberman notes in his review). He writes:

“At least one thing is wrong with this picture: If Charles is supposed to be such a poshly pretentious, imperiously self-interested customer, it seems highly unlikely that he’d go out of his way to make a scene in which he behaves like a low-dog pimp. Yet that’s all part of the shameless trash-fantasy broadness that gives Diary Of A Mad Black Woman its crudely rousing tent-show juice.”

Gleiberman’s larger issues with the film bleed through, and he even briefly laments the state of black cinema, but in his B- review, he stops just shy of condemning Perry’s work, and instead applauds its bombast: 

“If Hollywood were doing its job, there’d be no need for—or defense of—a movie as outsize in its melodrama as Diary Of A Mad Black Woman, yet it’s Tyler Perry’s belief that he isn’t just telling a story, he’s telling the story, that kept me watching… Diary is a crock, all right, but a crock made with conviction.” 

Gleiberman’s riff on Diary is typical of white criticism of Perry’s work. Perry reviews tend to call out his failures as a storyteller and make general statements about the overwhelming ick-factor of his work, but leaven those criticisms with faint praise of his audacity, his business savvy, or his work ethic, qualifications that would never make it into a review of an M. Night Shyamalan film, or the latest installment of the Scary Movie series. In March 2009, EW ran a reported piece about growing discomfort in the black community with Perry’s rise to prominence, and in doing so, deferred to black critics of his work, looking to them for the reactions that white critics like Gleiberman seem to have been internalizing all along.

The EW story about the Perry backlash was vital, because as white critics have furiously massaged their insults into something that sounds sort of complimentary, or at least ambivalent, criticism of Perry has been left to black critics and academics whose work doesn’t have the wide reach that mainstream white critics command, or the same ability to shape the dialogue about a film. But while it’s clear that white critics have been derelict in their gatekeeping duties where Perry’s work is concerned, it’s equally clear why.

Years ago, I briefly met Robert Bianco, USA Today’s longtime television critic, at the Television Critics Association Press Tour. I mentioned his blistering 2007 review of Perry’s maiden voyage into television, Tyler Perry’s House Of Payne, which he called the worst sitcom of the modern era. I told him I appreciated his candor, and he thanked me for saying so, because he said he was inundated with complaints and comments from Perry fans who attacked him, saying his whiteness put him out of touch with the cultural nuances that would allow him to properly enjoy Perry’s work. He was resolute in his opinion that House Of Payne could very well be a harbinger of the end times, but he also seemed like he might just as soon have not written anything, knowing what a headache it would become. In short, Bianco was told Perry’s work was a black thing, and that he wouldn’t understand. 

Perry’s films aren’t really a black thing, though, at least not inasmuch as that means his work is an accurate reflection of contemporary black life, or even that all black people like it. It’s easy to forget now that when Perry first started releasing films, his work was still relatively esoteric, even among black people. He had amassed an impressive following for his stage plays, but for black people who weren’t frequenting a black church or attending gospel plays already, Perry’s work wasn’t any more familiar than it was to white America. And as the EW piece illustrated, there’s plenty of debate within the black community about Perry’s work, and whether the increased visibility of screen stories about black people and the opportunities he’s created for black actors justify the wrongness of his messages, the broadness of his comedy, and the troublesome nature of his imagery. 

But for white critics, it seems, that’s a conversation best left for the black community to handle internally. I don’t entirely fault them for this conclusion. Perry strikes a nerve with his mostly black female audience specifically because of the elements some find most troubling about his films. Gleiberman clearly took issue with Diary’s unsubtle portrayal of Charles, who emotionally eviscerates his wife with such glee, there isn’t a visible sliver of humanity in him. But if that story resonates with black women, even if there’s a substantive debate to have about what it says about black men or relationships, does a white male critic want to be the one to initiate that debate? There are pitfalls for white critics in this scenario: They could tear Perry up and, like Bianco before them, face a backlash that calls them, at best, wrong for the task at hand, and at worst, racist. 

Temptation has given white critics free rein to trash Perry with impunity, because it allows them to skirt the racial implications of the work, and instead go after his harmful messages about HIV and women’s bodies. Even that is kind of an accident; the reaction to Temptation doesn’t exist in a bubble. The movie was released less than two weeks after the verdict came down in the Steubenville rape case. Any other time, Temptation might have won the types of confused, perplexing mainstream reviews Perry’s movies usually get, but at a time when rape and the politics of women’s bodies were commanding the zeitgeist, Temptation’s implication that women are complicit in their victimization by men couldn’t have been a more unwelcome message. It was so unwelcome, it was enough to encourage white critics, who are generally all too happy to stay out of the knottier conversations about Perry’s work, to attack once the dialogue moved to a topic they felt more comfortable engaging. 

The precarious relationship between Perry’s oeuvre and the white critics who have spent the past seven years sprinkling sugar on their critiques of it exposes the larger issue of the dearth of minority voices in film criticism. Say what you will about the New York Press’ athletically contrarian Armond White, he initiates conversations about black cinema that white critics studiously avoid, providing such a rare, unique service that he’s risen to an awkward prominence, in spite of reviews so wacky and left-field, they practically qualify as conceptual art. I don’t have a solution for the lack of diversity in the film-criticism discipline, but it’s a problem that there are conversations around Perry’s work that won’t take place unless a black person initiates them, and therefore almost never take place in mainstream film criticism.

But the Temptation backlash and its aftermath suggests those conversations could happen more often in mainstream criticism, even if it doesn’t become more diverse, because Perry’s success has helped eliminate the idea that discussions of black cinema are meant to be cloistered. Before Perry’s rise to prominence, there was a palpable anxiety about the dearth of black stories and characters on a screen of any size, anxiety that has been quelled by Perry’s ubiquity, especially as his success has led studios to green-light higher-quality depictions of contemporary black life like Just Wright and Jumping The Broom. Put simply, black people don’t view Perry’s movies as totems for our community the way we did back when having a movie with black characters in it felt like a triumph in and of itself. 

It’s possible to admire Perry’s work ethic, marvel at his success, or be impressed by the way he’s forced Hollywood to bend to him, and also think his movies are insidious. That’s possible for white critics as much as for black ones, but white critics are still treading carefully. Even in Mike Ryan’s Temptation treatise, he takes care to contextualize his criticism to prevent a backlash: “Please understand: I don’t dislike Tyler Perry. But I dislike the ending to Tyler Perry’s Temptation very much.” And later, Ryan mentions how much he liked Perry after meeting him: “I found him to be an affable, even warm, fellow, but I can’t claim to know much about his true motivations.” (Again, that’s something that wouldn’t turn up in a different critique; you’d never see the line, “Lars von Trier seems like a nice enough guy, but I really didn’t like Manderlay.”)

I’ve sifted through the comments on Ryan’s piece, and it seems as though his caution was unwarranted. Judging from the avatars, there are plenty of black people applauding Ryan’s take, and plenty of others rebutting it, but it’s a lively, informed, interesting discussion, in which not once did I see a commenter try to invalidate Ryan’s argument because he’s white. The comments are largely confined to the merits of the essay, or at least the film. It’s the type of open dialogue I’d love to see happen more often about Perry’s work, and perhaps Temptation will encourage white critics to be more forthcoming about how they feel about Perry without fear of offending the black community. 

The truth is, there’s a consensus among much of the black audience that pays to see Perry’s breathless, boiling-hot morality plays that matches the consensus of mainstream white critics: They’re fun, inconsequential trash at best, thematically unconscionable and deeply offensive at worst. It’s been hard to see that before, because a vocal minority of die-hard Perry acolytes has convinced white critics that the black community has formed a human chain around Madea, and white critics, in turn, have convinced the public they might like Perry’s movies considerably more, if only he got better at shot composition. By politely talking around race rather than directly to it, white mainstream film criticism has robbed Perry’s films of what could be their most redeeming quality: Hating them brings us all together.

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