04.22.11

Inside Tyler Perry's Tantrum

The Madea mogul lashed out at Spike Lee this week, two years after his rival's stinging criticism of his work. Allison Samuels on the not-so-secret battle raging in Black Hollywood.

Just this past Wednesday, radio shows, entertainment blogs, and countless websites were all abuzz with Tyler Perry’s chastising words for fellow African-American director Spike Lee.

The Hollywood powerhouse (and Oprah’s BFF besides Gayle), whose new film Madea’s Big Happy Family opens today, let loose some apparently long-held anger by declaring: “I’m so sick of hearing about damn Spike Lee. Spike can go straight to hell."

It seems a while back, Lee took offense with Perry’s writing and choice of material for his weekly television shows and in his films featuring the ever-present Madea.

Perry’s outraged response to Lee via his website and press conference turned out to be captivating news to many, but truly perplexing to even more.

Not only did Lee’s comments referencing Perry’s characters and plot lines as buffoonish “coonery” date back to 2009, the feeling that Perry’s movies often do more harm than good to the image of African Americans and even less for black actors creatively has long been Black Hollywood’s dirty, not-so-secret little secret.

Certainly no one is more aware of this fact than Perry himself.

So what’s the real problem?

In an industry that produces few films featuring African Americans in lead roles (or at all) each year, Perry has become the King of the Hill for most things black in Hollywood.

While the late '80s and early '90s saw Lee modestly dominate the box office with complex tales of black life, culture, and politics, Perry has made a rather impressive mint with a much simpler, less progressive approach.

Put an African-American man, usually Perry, in a wig, dress, and makeup and let the laughter begin and the box-office receipts overflow.

Of course black men in drag hitting box office or television gold isn’t a new concept in Hollywood. Comedian Flip Wilson did it first and arguably the best as “Geraldine" on The Flip Wilson Show during the '70s. Perry saw fit to up the ante with Madea, equipping his female impersonator with a gun , Bible, and her own unique choice of words and pronunciations. Audiences can’t get enough.

The nearly billion-dollar success Perry’s built on the back of Madea, coupled with the basic lack of opportunities for African Americans in Tinseltown, has allowed Perry to thrive and, more importantly, amass a die-hard loyalty from some of Hollywood’s top black talent, for better or for worse.

No doubt, that top talent would surely prefer to have other options in film roles if they were indeed available. They aren’t. Just ask Angela Bassett.

“No one in black Hollywood is going to attack Tyler’s work—in public that is," says a well-known black Hollywood producer. “But be clear, no one—not the black actors in his films or anyone else black in this industry—thinks he’s doing outstanding work.”

“Listen, no one in black Hollywood is going to attack Tyler’s work—in public that is," says a well-known black Hollywood producer who also asked not to be identified. “But be clear, no one--not the black actors in his films or anyone else black in this industry--thinks he’s doing outstanding work. No one is going to say that out loud of course because they need the work. He’s the only one hiring."

With consistently solid ratings for his television shows on TNT and box-office hits in theaters, some say Perry’s become spoiled and accustomed to the unwavering support he’s enjoyed from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and others.

“That’s why he’s so pissed at Spike. No one calls him out like that," says the producer.

Apparently even Lee doesn’t call him out like that anymore. Several sources say that after Lee openly criticized Perry in 2009, a few well-established black directors and producers approached the New York-based Malcolm X filmmaker and asked him to tone down his rhetoric. The concerned group cited the need to show a united front in support of Perry’s success to the mainstream world despite any misgivings with his work.

Lee has yet to respond to Perry’s recent comments, and Perry did not respond to The Daily Beast's request for comment.

“It benefits no one black to attack anyone else black in this business, it’s too few of us at this point to even get caught up in that fight. No one wins," said another producer who also declined to be identified.

Perry made exactly the same argument on his website this week as he stressed Italians, Jews, and other ethnic groups rarely publicly criticize one another or demean the work and success of another for the world to see. He also likened his battle with Lee as akin to the Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B Du Bois feud of the late 1800s, when the two openly sparred over the best way for African Americans to move forward from slavery into freedom.

While few failed to see that connection in Perry’s tirade, many in the black blogosphere have used Perry’s rant to open a public discussion on the merit of his films. The hundreds of responses make it crystal clear that Lee’s comments, no matter how dated, hit a nerve that remains exposed.

“It’s the same old point, if we had other movies, it wouldn’t be so bad," said Lana Thomas, a 35-year-old, die-hard Perry fan from Inglewood, California. “I love Tyler’s movies but I see the stereotypes in them, too. I also see it’s the same thing every film. It’s funny, just not sure if it will still be funny in five years."

The two debates that frequently go hand in hand are likely to rage on concerning Perry and his body of work. One argument examines the age-old conundrum of where, if, and when blacks should air their dirty laundry in public, while the other ponders if anything on screen depicting African Americans is better than seeing nothing all. Neither will be resolved soon.

Therein lies the problem. Though Perry’s movies may not be headed for Turner Classic Movies in 20 years, he does get the African-American audience out in droves to see his work. A feat Spike Lee and several other black directors have found hard to accomplish in recent years.

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Allison Samuels is a senior writer at Newsweek. Her work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, O, Essence and Vibe magazines. She's also the author of Christmas Soul, published by Disney/Jump At the Sun, and Off The Record, (Harper Collins/Amistad).