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Chevonne Harris

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Tyler Perry and the Black Moviegoer Conundrum

Posted: 07/18/2012 12:19 pm

Summer's here and you know what that means--cookouts, family reunions, water fights and of course, the requisite Tyler Perry film. This summer, Perry released his latest film, Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection. The comedy follows an investment banker and the fall guy of a Ponzi scheme as he and his family are placed in the witness protection program and assigned to live with Perry's signature character Mable Simmons, better known as Madea--cue urban colloquialisms, race-based humor and predictable culture-clashes.

While the picture brought in $25 million for its opening weekend and resurrected Perry's legion of loyal fans, it also drew what have quickly become the typical Perry critiques--he's an amateur, he lacks cinematic skill and is reinforcing racial stereotypes.

While the picture brought in $25 million for its opening weekend and resurrected Perry's legion of loyal fans, it also drew what have quickly become the typical Perry critiques--he's an amateur, he lacks cinematic skill and is reinforcing racial stereotypes.

Critics and Spike Lee rants aside, there's no denying Perry's innate ability to appeal to his audience or garner a hefty return on investment (the filmmaker is notorious for creating films on a shoestring budget with profits often doubling production costs). But when looking at Perry's success, one must wonder a few things.

First, after his years of blockbuster hits and discovery of a foolproof formula, why hasn't Hollywood followed Perry's lead? Say it three times fast and it sounds like quite the Socratic question. With less than ten movies released so far this year for black audiences, one must wonder, does Hollywood care about the black moviegoer?

Judging from the success of Perry and his "for us, by us" philosophy, it's hard to overlook the profit Hollywood stands to gain by tapping into black moviegoers' pockets. Since his debut film, Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, hit theaters in 2005, Perry has proven the power of the black dollar time and time again, yet for some reason Hollywood continues to ignore the giant cash cow in the room. In an industry driven by the bottom line, it's difficult to figure out why the light hasn't gone on in some corporate exec's head to add a little more mahogany to the screen -- if not for the blacks, then why not for the bank?

On the few occasions major black films are released domestically, the results often exceed expectations. The Kevin Hart comedy Think Like a Man opened to roughly 2,000 screens earlier this spring -- 1,000 screens fewer than the Zac Efron romance, The Lucky One -- yet still managed to nab the No. 1 spot on opening weekend, beating Efron's film by more than $10 million.

For a man who has built his career on creating films starring all-black casts, one can't help but notice that Perry is slowly moving away from the foolproof formula that made him millions, not to mention the devoted audience that has stuck with him through public attacks, so-so storylines and less-than stellar movie reviews. Besides Perry, Romeo Miller and John Amos are the only slightly dominant faces of color in Madea's Witness Protection, which features Eugene Levy, Denise Richards and Doris Roberts.

It's difficult to nail down why a community who values loyalty and is notoriously critical of how they are portrayed in the media would continuously support age-old racial stereotypes masked in fat suits, drag, punchy one-liners, over-the-top drama and a film director who seems to have chosen crossover appeal in lieu of his devoted audience.

But I digress. I don't hate Tyler Perry. In fact, I admire his business savvy, resilience to the naysayers and love of black culture and tradition. I'm a fan of several of his films and stage plays. In full disclosure, I watched Madea's Witness Protection on opening weekend, laughing out loud a few times at the empty humor while rolling my eyes at the undertones of coonery, including Madea's inarticulateness and initial presumed fear of her white houseguests.

The enchanting thing about Perry and the core of the black moviegoer conundrum is that although Perry has mastered the art of making and marketing black movies to black people, his films are in no way a true portrayal of modern black culture. But considering the lack of options for black moviegoers to choose from, in a twisted, stereotypes aside kind of way, Perry's formula of humor, heartache and cultural clichés somehow works, dispelling the myth and popular hip-hop mantra, "if it don't make dollars, it don't make sense." In the case of Tyler Perry, it does make dollars but it don't always make sense.

This post originally appeared in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.

 
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