“Coonery and bafoonery” is a harsh judgment, especially during a live taping of the Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference.
But renowned director Spike Lee wasn’t the only one to publically criticize Tyler Perry’s inexplicable empire.On last week's episode of South Park, Cartman instructed Token to "stop giving Tyler Perry money or he won't go away."
Two years ago, when sparks were flying between Lee and Perry, Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University addressed the feud during an appearance at UCLA:
“Spike Lee is a great filmmaker. Tyler Perry is a good filmmaker.”
However, West didn’t dismiss Perry-- and neither did scholars at BGSU.
Dr. Angela Nelson, Associate Professor of Popular Culture and the Acting Chair of Ethnic Studies, presented “It’s A Mad, Mad, Madea World!” during Black History Month. The event covered playwright Tyler Perry’s success transforming his urban morality dramas into movies.
The New York Times reported Perry made $530 million box office dollars before the release of “For Colored Girls”—the movie earning him a NAACP Image Award for “Best Director.”
As Nelson attempts to define “black popular culture” in her ongoing research, she uses Perry as a test case. Her presentation gave everyone a glimpse of Perry’s stage plays—the foundation of his controversial movies.
Ethnic studies instructor Dr. Ramona Bell said both Lee and Perry have encountered problems authenticating representations of “blackness” in mainstream entertainment.
“Just because it’s a black person producing the movie doesn’t necessarily mean all black people are going to agree with the way these characters are represented,” said Bell.
Regardless, Perry’s characters dominate the big and small screens, and none is more notorious than Madea— a combination of his mother, grandmother and aunt played by Perry himself.
Nelson said Madea represents several stereotypes; Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel and B-girl, combined to become something more dynamic.
“In terms of having a stereotype who is the same actor or actress, I think that’s adding something,” Nelson said.
While Perry’s drag performance came under fire, Nelson said his intimate involvement separates Madea from “Big Momma” and the rest.
But Bell said any black man in a dress is troubling, given the historical context.
“It’s just another part of that continuum in which they’re infantilized, they’re emasculated-- these types of images have always been part of American culture” Bell said.
Where some see innovation, others see Perry reproducing more of the same. Years ago, Lee encouraged Perry’s faithful audiences to spend their time and dollars elsewhere.
“I know it’s making a lot of money and breaking records, but we can do better,” he said.
Sade Young, a second year master’s student studying pop culture, said Lee is only reinforcing the cultural pressure put on minority directors to act as spokespeople for their race.
As for Perry, she thinks he’s an example of the American dream.
“He’s doing something that hasn’t been done before. He’s a black man that writes, produces, scores the music—he does it all and he’s a self-made person,” Young said.
While “Madea’s Big Happy Family” delights fans in theaters this May, others are still waiting for improvement.
West told UCLA society must allow Perry room to mature-- but warned if he’s still doing Madea at 65, then it’ll be a problem.