Tyler Perry recently topped off the list of the highest paid men in entertainment. Perry raked in an estimated $130 million last year between his films and two TBS television shows, House of Payne and Meet the Browns. The list was compiled by Forbes magazine and helps Perry stake his claim as a serious power player among Hollywood big shots.
Perry wasn't the only African American on the list. Tiger Woods, in spite of being scandal-plagued and only a shadow of his former self, also pulled in $75 million last year. No black actors or actresses were on the list, showing that production and business models reign supreme. If there is any lesson for aspiring young actors, actresses, athletes and entertainers to learn, its that you gain wealth and power by owning things, and not by working for other people.
Perry's obvious financial success leads some to wonder just how far a man should go in order to find his way to riches. Perry's films have been criticized as being stereotypical, degrading and emasculating. At the same time, there are those who believe that Perry is "playing the game" in a way that has created jobs for hundreds of previously out-of-work actors, actresses, producers, directors, and make-up artists. Both sides have a point, since having plenty of money in the bank is an easy way to get people to forgive almost any professional sin, just ask Bob Johnson at BET.
When Spike Lee screamed his critique of Perry from the rooftops, I didn't agree with him. Lee went out of his way to say that Perry has been engaging in "coonery" in order to sell tickets. Lee was over the top in his remarks about Perry, and Spike seemed unwilling to give Tyler credit for his achievements. Additionally, some have been critical of Spike's treatment of black actors, including actor Clifton Powell, who said he would love to "whoop Spike's ass" for the way he treats his employees.
With that being said, it is important for us to view Perry movies with an eye of balance. Perry's southern roots may lead him to believe that it's not so bad to have a chicken and grits eatin' Aunt Jemima character dancing for white folks, as long you're making money while you're doing it. But the truth is that money cannot and should not be the trump card justification for behavior that undermines the dignity of your people. So, those who see Perry's financial success as a big "I told you so" in the face of Spike Lee are dead wrong.
Tyler Perry comes off as a man with tremendous compassion, an everlasting love of black folks and a productive sense of humor. While America laughs at the man in a dress, there is a smarter man behind the scenes working to produce a positive and empowering message. In nearly every Perry film, there are a slew of conscientious and inspiring black characters who project all dimensions of the black experience; these characters help to water down those images that might be better fit for a minstrel show. This balance is what gives Perry a license to make us all laugh by putting on a dress.
The point is that black people have every right to be as silly and ridiculous as any white man we might see on the MTV show, Jackass. The problem with having a predominantly white media is that these are typically the only images provided to us, which puts us into a discriminatory box. Films like The Help, and shows like Basketball Wives might provide popular and profitable entertainment, but the broader concern is that Hollywood has a troubling history of casting African Americans in subservient and humiliating ways. A man like Perry can tell the story of the black maid, because it would likely be fused with that of the black police officer, attorney, astronaut and prostitute. Perry does a reasonably good job of mixing it up and provides a message of love, family and faith at the end. You can't get too mad at that.
While I am quick to defend Perry, I caution him to use his power responsibly. After reading the Forbes article, there are thousands of young black film makers who are tempted to put on a dress and Aunt Jemima costume in order to make their first million. The point that must be kept in mind is that there are things more important than money, and having "a grip" of cash in your bank account does not excuse all forms of ridiculous behavior. In fact, you can't put a price on your self-respect.
But I'm sure Perry knows this already.
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