I’m still looking for the person who unequivocally loves Madea. Either people can’t stand the character or think it’s been overdone to the point that they can’t watch any Tyler Perry movie that she’s a part of.
As I say that, I bet the overwhelming majority of you know exactly who Madea is. You can picture her curly grey hair and hear her annoying, high pitched voice. You’re imagining her curse someone out or hit someone with her purse. That alone makes Perry one of the greatest writers of our generation. He’s created a character that’s become popular enough to be instantly recognized by name alone without attachment to any one particular movie.
But that hasn’t been enough for Perry. I don’t think it ever was. He famously self-financed his first play. That was after living out of his car not knowing if his dreams would ever come true. So when the announcement was made that he is the first African American to independently own his own studio, as amazing an accomplishment an entertainer can imagine, it couldn’t have been too surprising.
Tyler Perry has never wanted a seat at the table
It’s a curious time to be black on this side of the world. Even if your eyes are closed it’s impossible not to feel the way we’re celebrating each other. It’s also impossible to ignore our demands. That we be respected, that we be let into spaces that previously took us for granted despite our impact or presence.
Counter that with what almost feels like a racial civil war. Our demands haven’t been met without resistance and that resistance is creating deep fractures in our society. Some will argue those fractures were always there, and they have been. But it’s also true that social media has made this division more contentious, or at least more public.
In the midst of this, Perry has quietly been constructing his empire away from the noise of Hollywood. He’s stayed in Atlanta despite his commercial success in the film industry. The newly built Tyler Perry Studios is on over 300 acres of former slave ground in Georgia, an irony that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Perry has unapologetically catered his art specifically to black culture.
“My audience and the stories that I tell are African-American, stories specific to a certain audience, specific to a certain group of people that I know, that I grew up with, and we speak a language. Hollywood doesn’t necessarily speak the language.” he said. “A lot of critics don’t speak that language. So, to them, it’s like, ‘What is this?’ “
That choice has made Perry an “other.” Someone who’s acknowledgement outside of black culture doesn’t equal his achievements or influence within it. But that has never seemed to bother Perry. He came into the game on his own dime so he’s always understood where he would stand. He would have to do it on his own, and so he has.
Tyler Perry Studios needs to work
It won’t be enough for this to be some kind of symbolic gesture. In twenty years, we can’t look back and ask, “what ever happened to Tyler Perry’s studio.” We need to make this work. Great movies must be born there. Iconic TV series must live in one of the twelve sound stages named after black people who’ve inspired Perry to control his own destiny. This is not a test and shouldn’t be treated as such. It’s a waving flag of victory for a battle we still need to win.
Tyler Perry has taken a leap. He’s built a table we can call our own. We creators should all feel welcome to pull up chairs and begin sharing our stories.