Don’t worry if you don’t “get” Tyler Perry. You’re probably not his intended audience, anyway. As a playwright, he strives to understand the urban experience, giving voice to those grossly underrepresented within the theatrical medium. As a filmmaker, however, he is more in touch with his pocket book than his ‘people’. Everything he does on camera tends to go upscale, moving his African American characters into near fanciful realms of luxury and lifestyle. Still, the stories are the same, interpersonal topics like marriage and fidelity, parenting and childhood, relatives and family strife filling his scenes. Toss in a healthy dose of the Good Book, and some soul salvation, and you’ve got the makings of one of the most unusual phenomenons ever.
Trying to uncover why Perry is so popular is not all that difficult. The standard issue response is that he caters to a demographic previously disregarded. And when one looks back at how Hollywood treated individuals of color as recently as 40 years ago, he’s clearly filling a massive niche. Others mention his drag act diva-ship via the madwoman matriarch character he created, Mabel “Madea” Simmons. She’s Redd Foxx without the ‘blue’ moods. Some site a skillful balance between the clichéd and the creative, a gift for using old school melodramatics to touch upon updated, contemporary nerves. And then there are those who simply respond to his God is Great pronouncements. If popular culture is anything, it’s afraid of religion. Perry embraces it fully, reflecting the beliefs and faith of the audience his efforts play to - and they love it.
With the latest big screen adaptation of one of his plays, Meet the Browns, set to open on 21 March, it may be time to dig deeper into the Perry mystique to try and ascertain his staying power. One things for certain - when he puts out cinematic versions of his previously road showed events, crowds clamor. Of the four films he’s been involved in - Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Daddy’s Little Girls, and Why Did I Get Married? , only one has had less than impressive box office returns. Oddly enough, Girls was also the only one without a theatrical foundation. The rest of his oeuvre has grossed in excess of $100 million, and Browns is likely to continue that trend - especially since this movie marks the return of that all important insane woman, Madea.
Much has been made of Perry, a tall African American male playing an outsized female stereotype, a character noted for her pot smoking, gun toting, pop culture referencing rigors. Perry has said that Madea represents every strong black woman he ever grew up around, the care giving center of a father-less, often frightening urban environment. The jocular personality is merely part of the entertainment paradigm. But there is actually more to Madea than this. As a comic foil, she is the entertainment heart of many of Perry’s plays. Even when she’s not a part of the production, the author finds a funny business substitute (usually in the persona of Leroy Brown) to do the humor heavy lifting.
On the other hand, Madea is also the no nonsense voice of reason, a guide through many of life’s more complicated and vexing issues. Certainly, some of her advice is outdated (beat your kids) and outrageous (the classic “hot grits on the stove” for a cheating man), but it plays directly into the audience’s collective memory. No one has done a better job of filtering the African American experience of the last 50 years into a viable production package than Perry. Even others who’ve tried to mimic his approach - David E. Talbert, for example - seems stuck in a purely post-modern position. But Tyler Perry is old school without being ancient, effectively mixing the contemporary with the classic to create his universe.
It’s something that plays directly into the spiritual element as well. Perry’s scripts are like toe tapping tent revivals, action intermittently interrupted so that good time Gospel shout outs can be introduced. It’s a very important part of their effectiveness, the pressure cooker conceit of all those pent up problems breaking free and into the hands of Christ. Perry hires wonderful vocalists, from David and Tamala Mann (better known as The Browns) to Cheryl Pepsi Riley and D’Atra Hicks, and they all know how to really sell a song. Yet it’s odd that these mainstay moments are stripped from the cinematic versions of his work. Even when he casts noted superstars from the music biz - Janet Jackson, Jill Scott - to play certain roles, music is barely mentioned.
That’s why many in the mainstream just don’t “get” Perry. They see his undemanding storylines, his exaggerated characters, his good vs. evil straightforwardness, and conclude that there is nothing of substance present. They even mock his lack of context. But it’s clear that audiences attending a Perry picture are already well versed in the foundation for the film. They don’t need to see every song, recognize every character, or experience every subplot. As long as there are familiar elements from his celebrated stagings, the ticket sales will soar and the turnstiles will spin. It’s not unlike making a cinematic version of a noted bestseller or beloved TV show - except Perry is much more entertaining.
Oddly enough, as of late, the author has been messing with the formula. While Madea’s Family Reunion used most of the play’s storyline, both Why Did I Get Married? and Meet the Browns have been substantially altered. There are many explanations for such a stance. Part of the rationale is that Perry wants to give moviegoers a different experience than those familiar with the plays. There are delightful DVD versions of these efforts, after all. At the same time, much of the man’s acclaim has come from familiarity. Though his TV sitcom, House of Payne, is a syndicated cable hit, Daddy’s Little Girls barely grossed $31 million - almost $20 million less than any other of the films. Changing the premise seems antithetical to those intentions.
On the other hand, he’s a name brand now, a noted Oprah approved member of the medium. He can do anything he wants and it literally brings out his devotees. Married was still a sizable hit, and another Madea outing (Goes to Jail) is in the works. Perry’s latest play The Marriage Counselor, is making its church and congregation run and his last effort, What’s Done in the Dark… has just landed on the digital format. It seems there’s no stopping this creative powerhouse - and the profits can attest to his staying power. Yet one has to wonder if Perry can ever resolve the hominess of his theatrical works with the archness of his film. Madea might be a powerful iconic image, but could she work outside an already established story? Would a wholly original Perry film be seen as a stretch, or as something to be avoided until word of mouth strengthens the sense of success?
These are the pitfalls Meet the Browns faces when it opens nationwide this weekend. Most critics will not see it in advance (Lionsgate takes a genre-oriented horror-haters position when it comes to many of its previews) and there will be those who instantly dismiss anything with Perry’s name attached no matter what the circumstances are. The few who see it will trot out the standard rejections, and race will get a minor airing along the way. Even that derogatory term ‘chitlin’ circuit’ will show up now and again. But the fact remains that Tyler Perry is a solid, seasoned entertainer with enough invention and drive to keep going for years. He’s patented. He’s bonafide. He’s sanctified. No one can take that away from him - not even his own sense of self. There will always be an underserved element of society looking for someone in sync with their views. For now, Tyler Perry is it, and that’s all that matters.