This year's Black History Month marks the 10-year anniversary of Tyler Perry's career as a filmmaker. In February 2005, Perry released Diary of a Mad Black Woman, as writer and producer. His successful debut effort generated sales almost 10 times its budget. Perry would go on to write, direct and produce more than a dozen more films, grossing over $600 million worldwide.
Perry's profitability places him in exclusive space as a cinematic artist who can freely choose his content, themes and actors without conforming to Hollywood's obtrusive prescriptions for economic viability. This is a development with great sociological relevance: a black Southern folk-religious filmmaker enjoying unprecedented freedom and power to produce movies that exhibit the cadences of his intriguing path.
Tyler Perry's early years as a playwright are important for reasons beyond jumpstarting his vocation as an artist. Having no film school training, Perry honed his comedic timing in front of countless live audiences. Traveling the nation as a writer, actor and director of theatrical productions imparted a competitive edge to the future filmmaker by making him a lay ethnographer of African-American audiences.
Perry's films address modern urban issues and the dividing continuum between black socioeconomic promise and despair. His movies walk that fine line between the absurd and the painful, presenting the devastating effect that drugs, the loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas expansion, the problem of securing affordable housing and childcare, and the vicissitudes of working-class survival have on contemporary black lives. But his films also celebrate the beauty and efficacy of black privilege by creating more professional and highly educated African-American characters than perhaps any contemporary mainstream artist. Perry's movies display how the post-soul era represents a paradox of black aristocratic privilege juxtaposed to a growing underworld of black urban chaos.
Whereas social scientists, journalists and activists often portray black working-class vulnerabilities as primary identity markers of black urban experiences, Tyler Perry refuses to limit his filmic representations of poor or working-class blacks as pathological and needy. Instead, he often positions positive working-class characters as existential mentors to their more privileged counterparts who, while enjoying economic comforts and high status, need to learn how to live more empowered lives from the filmmaker's perspective. Hence a profound facet of Tyler Perry's populist appeal posits the privation of black privilege through the remedial gaze of black working-class composure.
Perry's movies demonstrate the ways in which populism and spiritual vitality interact within late-modern iterations of contemporary black life and religious cultures. The vibrant gospel music soundtracks, riveting worship services, and creative preaching moments encapsulated throughout his films speak to his appeal among a new generation of Protestants nurtured in black mega churches. While Perry has done more than any filmmaker to incorporate black religious forms and Christian sentiments into mainstream secular movies, his depiction of modern spirituality is quite complex in the ways in which it renegotiates deeply held beliefs and practices within American Protestantism.
But if you want a simpler way to understand Perry's post-soul appeal, just consider this: for the low price of a movie ticket, the Perry patron can ingest the self-motivation of life coach Iyanla Vanzant, the slapstick comedic capacities of the Wayans family, the gospel musical wizardry of the Winans family, the psychotherapeutic healing of an Oprah "aha moment," the folk-cultural depth of a Maya Angelou poem, the Madea-madness of a hip-hop track, and the exuberance and spirituality of a neo-Pentecostal worship service. Note that the above references--life coach Iyanla Vanzant, the Wayans clan of comedic performers and actors, the Winans family of gospel music stars, the late poet Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, hip-hop music, and neo-Pentecostal churches--are all immensely popular among contemporary African Americans and provide assets similar to those that Perry's movies exhibit in abundant supply.
Perhaps Black History Month and the filmmaker's 10-year anniversary should inspire us to take a closer look at Tyler Perry's impressive accomplishments. His expansive employment of black actors, satirical deployment of black Southern tropes and vernaculars, along with his bold representations of pressing social issues like sexual assault, drugs and poverty are enough to garner Tyler Perry space among the pantheon of today's greatest cinematic innovators.
Shayne Lee is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Houston and author of the forthcoming book Tyler Perry's America: Inside His Films (published by Rowman & Littlefield)