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Tyler Perry: Should Black Spectators Celebrate His Success?

With "Acrimony" coming out this week, Perry continues to be a divisive character in black cinema.

Idris Elba. Taraji P. Henson. Tessa Thompson. Alfre Woodard. Thandie Newton. Gabrielle Union. Sanaa Lathan. Cicely Tyson, Beyonce. Janet Jackson. Jill Scott. Dwayne The Rock Johnson. Mary J. Blige. Tiffany Haddish

More than a who's who of black Hollywood, this is a list of black creatives who have worked with writer-director-star and media mogul Tyler Perry. Even global movie lover "Black Panther" joins forces with Tyler Perry Studios, with part of the film filmed at his studio-based soundstage in Atlanta.

You would find it hard to find a black creative that is not similarly related to Perry. Direct or indirect, the multi-hyphenate media mogul has been an innovator of black cinema for more than 20 years. Largely removed from the Hollywood machine, Perry founded a studio that produced, directed and wrote 20 films, eight television shows and a variety of other projects in all media. But he remains slandered and mocked by critics and many Hollywood insiders.

I'm not a Perry "Stan" by any means, but I can not hate him either because I just can not handle the hustle and bustle. All of Perry's films are profitable. They celebrate stories that Hollywood largely ignores, and he continues to display A-lists and up-and-coming black talents. Yes, I know, his problematic portrayal of minority characters leaves many (including myself) cold on his mark, but the statistics do not lie.

Critics and members of the African American community have ridiculed Perry's films to reinforce negative or stereotypical films of images of black identity, with Madea Cherry's characterization of a loud, pistol-carrying, bible-wearing woman and the center of his Madea verses ̵

1; often as her manifesting the most obvious goal. When asked about Perry in 2009, Spike Lee said, "Any artist should be allowed to pursue his artistic endeavors, but I still think there's a lot of stuff today, that's Coonery Buffoonery." Lee has since gone back, he's not the only member of the African American community to call him out. Jamilah Lemieux, in an open letter to Perry, was more balanced with her criticism. She thanked Perry for "hiring black people in front of and behind the camera," but criticized his shows for showing "old stereotypes of arrogant, disembodied black men and stark, cheeky black women."

While I do agree that some of the Madea films can be overcooked as simple cartoons of black culture and raw comedy, they are not without merit. "For Colored Girls", "Diary of a Crazy Black Woman" and "I Can Do It All Badly", all with intricate and authentic black women whose plot focuses on black female identity. In addition, a critical quality consensus has never automatically translated to an integrated audience. For every Madea film that debuts at number one, there is a critical darling that never reaches circulation and attention.

Few directors can predict that their audience follows them from project to project, as Perry's audience is aware of his work. When questioned about Lee's comments, Perry said, "Such attitudes make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, so no material speaks to them and speaks to us." And in that sense he is not wrong; Perry's fan base keeps showing up to buy tickets that often surpass the screen projections, proving he's rightfully accessing an underserved audience.



Tyler Perry Studios

He returns to the cinemas with "Acrimony" with Taraji P. Henson. It is unlikely that he leads Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One" or even the second week of John Boyega's "Pacific Rim", but it has a fighting chance to debut in third place. This kind of blockbuster puts Perry and his work in a precarious position – can we celebrate his success while still challenging the problematic elements of his films?

This situation, known as The Tyler Perry Effect, was investigated for a thesis on black media in 2011. In it, Nicole E. Jackson interviewed several African Americans about their exposure to Perry's work. She then asked respondents if they negatively influenced the work, as they looked at black identity and black culture. In the end, she came to the conclusion that Perry's work is more beneficial than harmful to the viewer's racial identity or experience. It's unlikely that her thesis would yield similar results if it included non-black viewers, but it's worth noting how the intended audience sees Perry's work, with its professed focus on films for black female audiences. His films are not conspicuous, they do not use a ton of CGI, they are cost effective and this formula works. Seven of the last eight Madea films opened with more than $ 20 million at the box office.

As a black woman, I am Perry's intended audience, but I do not enjoy most of his work. The Madea movies are just not my cup of tea. I would much rather see "Love Jones", "Love & Basketball" or "Girls Trip" before any Madea movie … but I will see "Acrimony" this weekend. My main motivation is to see Henson chewing the scenery as well as she can, but I will definitely be there. I think that leaves me somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of "The Tyler Perry Effect". Although I do not join or even trust in Perry's films, they routinely ensure that black faces (and especially black women faces) remain on big screens, movie posters, and casting calls. So, if that means that his movies override "Dope" or "Medicine for Melancholy" in my family cookouts, I reluctantly made peace with them.

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