Tyler Perry Built a Movie Empire by Selling Out Black Women
Without the input of actual black women writers and producers, Perry’s oeuvre relies on punishing black female characters’ desires to be loved, have sex, and take risks.
It’s hard to write about Tyler Perry’s latest film A Fall from Grace, because it’s not a film that’s intended for thoughtful viewing—it’s meant to be devoured uncritically and compulsively. This may go for any of his films, though, on occasion, the acting is good enough to overcome the atrocities, like Angela Bassett’s performance in Meet the Browns, Keke Palmer in Madea’s Family Reunion, or I Can Do Bad All By Myself’s Hope Olaide Wilson (who more recently starred in Tchaiko Omawale’s excellent Solace).
Unlike those earlier Perry films, A Fall from Grace is a full-on melodrama, with no comic relief to give talented actors like Crystal Fox and Phylicia Rashad room to breathe under the strain of a pedestrian and offensive screenplay. The film is on one level about elder abuse, and on the other, about the apparent naiveté of older women who are desperate to be loved, even when it all seems too good to be true. Perry fuses these two themes because the latter victim-blaming is an easy way to moralize the film’s absurd sequence of events, which are all solved by a rookie public defender who—no kidding—detests people who have committed crimes.
This public defender, Jasmine Bryant (Bresha Webb), is married to a cop (Matthew Law) who, at the beginning of the film tries and fails to save an older woman who is threatening to jump off the roof of the boarding house/nursing home she lives in. Later, Jasmine finds herself assigned to a simple plea-deal case: An older woman named, you guessed it, Grace (Fox), allegedly murdered her much younger husband Shannon (Mehcad Brooks), and has confessed to police. Jasmine doesn’t shine in court, so her boss (Perry in an unconvincing wig and beard) assigns her the case with the expectation that Jasmine will have Grace promptly sign a plea deal. This arrangement works for Jasmine: Her desire to be a public defender is waning since she believes all of her clients are “murderers, liars, and thieves” unworthy of her commitment; she would prefer to be enveloped in the goodness of her domestic life with her policeman hubby.
Perry—who recently bragged about writing all of his recent film and TV scripts alone—seems unaware of (or just doesn’t care) how unusual it would be for a public defender to be married to a police officer, as well as how twisted it is for someone who has willingly taken on a relatively low-salaried social justice job (after incurring student debt) to hate the people she is meant to serve. None of these themes are explored; we’re meant to accept them as typical of an innocent, attractive young black woman married to a hot young cop.
But luckily for Miss Grace, Jasmine believes that even though Grace hit her philandering and abusive second husband over the head with a baseball bat several times and then pushed his unconscious body down the basement steps, she didn’t actually kill him. Otherwise, it seems, the film would be happy to see Grace to die a slow, incarcerated death. Let’s put this thorn aside for a moment since Perry does not see his audience as sophisticated enough to be skeptical of the requirement that black people be innocent in order for their lives to be valued. What’s most obviously offensive about this film, and Perry’s oeuvre in general, is how passive, gullible, and greedy he renders his black women characters, and how he punishes them for the so-called sins they dare to commit.
Throughout the film, Grace laments not only her gullibility in the face of a new love after divorce (she caught her first husband sleeping with, you guessed again, his secretary), but her lustful feelings for a much younger man who promised to cure her loneliness. For this audacity of hope, Perry hands down the harshest sentence (not a spoiler because it’s all in the trailer): After marrying her, Shannon steals money from the bank Grace manages using her passwords, then mortgages the home she already owns by forging her signature.
Once Grace finds out Shannon’s swindled her, he lets her know that the state’s marriage laws means he can do whatever he wants with assets they technically share (the state they live in is never specified, but this seems like an awfully convenient plot point, given that his name is not on the deed), and Grace finds out, with the help of her friend Sarah (Rashad), that a civil suit would take too long and be too expensive to bring forth. After being found out, Shannon basks in his shameless luxury by smoking doobies in bed and bringing a woman home while Grace is there. So she kills the bastard.
Even in his romantic comedies, Perry is obsessed with having black women tamp down their perceived arrogance. In Meet the Browns (the 2008 version), Bassett plays Brenda, a dynamic and discerning single and newly jobless mother who is struggling to care for her children. When she finds out that her father—whom she never knew—has passed away, Brenda goes to Georgia for the funeral and meets her half-brothers and -sisters, who make up the outspoken and uncouth Browns. In the course of this family reunion, Brenda manages to build the family ties she never had and in turn the Browns help her with her own children. So naturally, Brenda is resistant when Harry (Rick Fox), a basketball scout with eyes on her talented son, tries to step in and wifey her up. Harry ends up buying Brenda’s late father’s old house for her and her kids to live in, which leads to more suspicion on Brenda’s part, which Harry scolds her for after she confronts him. Eventually, Brenda’s son Mike Jr. tells her that Harry is more of a father to him than his biological father (who is still alive and shows up when Mike Jr. gets signed to a basketball team) ever was; Brenda and Harry get married.
I could go on. I Can Do Bad All By Myself sees Taraji P. Henson’s April go from selfish party-girl to mother and wife; her “badness,” which includes drinking and sleeping around, is explained in the film as due to the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her step-father. April’s future husband Sandino (Adam Rodriguez), a former child laborer who works on and boards in her house, inserts himself just enough in her life in order to save her niece—who she becomes the guardian of after her sister’s death—from being raped by her own abusive boyfriend Randy. Perry’s drag character Madea is in both of these films, playing a no-angel auntie who begrudgingly saves the children before the bad black women have learned their lessons.
But in Perry’s dramas, there is no Madea, hunky basketball scout, or kindly Latino laborer to hand down wisdom and watch the kids until the stubborn black lady comes to her senses enough to get married. Instead, the women must fall hard; their desires—to be loved, have sex, and take risks—leave them incarcerated or with HIV. Perry claims that this is the kind of salt and sap his audiences love, that they want to see Bible verses translated into the most base and conservative interpersonal dramas starring all-black casts because these are the stories that ring true to them.
In fact, Perry, while offering lucrative work to supremely talented black actors who face racist discrimination throughout the rest of the industry, actually does a major disservice to his employees; he sells out his leading ladies for cold hard cash, and without the input of actual black women writers and producers who may have the insight to tell more dignified or honest stories. (Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency comes to mind as the kind of black woman-helmed project that should get the platform A Fall from Grace has.) But in the end, with or without a writers’ room, Perry is in the game to make money off of the non-cinephilic black Americans looking for entertainment featuring characters who resemble the people they know. By using his company to reproduce prejudices primarily about black women his audiences may or may not already hold, Perry does not simply capitalize but proselytizes. In the name of “representation,” a new holy grail in the mostly empty response to racism in the film industry, he lifts the worst ideas and impulses into plain view—a fall from grace indeed.