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During Tribeca Film Festival’s “Tribeca Talks” directors series, filmmaker, actor, and director Tyler Perry sat on Monday with CBS Mornings co-host Gayle King.
“At this moment, it really is about legacy,” Perry said in part during the 60-minute interview.
With more than 13 films, 22 theatrical plays and seven television shows under his belt, Perry has created projects that speak to an African American experience, yet, his characters have often splintered Black viewers wanting better representation.
Perry’s fortune was built on “Madea,” even if the caricature wasn’t wholly embraced.
While Perry has been undoubtedly successful throughout his career from stage to screen, the portrayals of African Americans in his films often rung hollow to many Blacks who knew better than their lying eyes were witnessing.
Actress Hattie McDaniel, throughout her career in the early 1900s was relegated to portraying a “Mammy” caricature. Around the same time, actor Stepin Fetchit was regularly a bumbling and lazy fool feeding an even lazier audience seeking lowbrow and racist laughs.
Walter White, then head of the NAACP, pleaded with African American actors to stop accepting such stereotypical parts, as he believed they degraded the community. He also urged movie studios to start creating roles that portrayed Black people as capable of achieving far more than cooking and cleaning for white people.
Yet, despite her immense talent as an actress and singer, Hollywood relegated her to stereotypical caricatures that reflected the racism of her time. In 1940, McDaniel won an Oscar for her role in “Gone with the Wind,” the first Black person to win the coveted statuette.
The movie’s premier was held in a whites-only theater in Atlanta, and McDaniel was not allowed to attend. At the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, she sat alone at a table at the side of the room.
McDaniel cried as she accepted her Oscar, saying:
I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you how I feel.”
Much like McDaniel, Tyler Perry’s roles come at a price.
While it’s no doubt McDaniel, like Perry, is immensely talented, their works polarize Black audiences who root for their success while cringing at how they achieved it. Perry is a hard-working self-starter, everything he has is because he, under God’s direction, manifested it. He’s been able to create Tyler Perry Studios, a former Confederate base now owned by himself – which is quite literally no small thing.
Located in Atlanta, Tyler Perry Studios stretches across 330 acres of land on what was Fort McPherson, a deactivated Army base built by slaves and once used by the Confederate government during the Civil War.
To have me be the owner of that very land that people were plotting and planning on how to keep 3.9 million Negros enslaved on, be owned by one Black man,” Perry said, “I think about those people — the ancestors — and what they must think if they could know that. Like, what would that feel like?”
With a rich knowledge of Black history and those who made it, Perry is not only aware of trailblazers before him, but pays homage. Tyler Perry Studios has 12 sound stages named after “African Americans who really inspired me,” including Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Cicely Tyson and Sidney Poitier.
Throughout his career, Perry has also been a generous man to those in need, making public and private donations to people struggling to get by. By all accounts, Perry has been a champion for his people, offering his time and resources to advance Black life in America, however, the foundation of his success was built from traveling stage plays as Madea buffooned her way to the top where she still reigns today.
Tyler Perry brings Madea back to lighten the mood.
Per NBC News, during the interview with King, Perry also highlighted the political divide and the social injustices in the U.S., which he said is one of the reasons his Madea character returned to the screen after her 2018 “retirement” — “A Madea Homecoming” was released on Netflix in February. He also said that the hate, anger, rage and constant flow of difficult news inspired him to make something to help people laugh.
Of all the ways a man in his position can influence change, furthering an already outdated and worn caricature will hardly bring forth world peace. Madea offers the same thing McDaniel and Fetchit’s depictions did, a look at a dim-witted, archetype, and uncouth Black on screen willing to stoop to new lows all while telling a forgettable and predictable storyline along the way.
As McDaniel once hoped for, she and Perry undoubtedly are a credit to their race. The amount of Black people employed by Perry and also those who have shined on-screen or on-stage is innumerable, however, Black audiences are not a monolith and when we are portrayed as less than, we expect more from our best and brightest stars.