Tyler Perry and the Multifaceted Black Audience
We will not come to an agreement about his work, and that is perfectly fine.
I haven’t watched a Tyler Perry film in years.
That isn’t to sound bourgeois, it’s just the truth. I remember enjoying the Madea stage plays and movies with my family members, making jokes and quoting the comical characters with my friends. There was definitely a time when I found his films enjoyable.
But eventually, I just got tired of it.
It felt like I was seeing the same plot repeatedly. There’s always a struggling God-fearing Black lady, usually with a lot of emotional pain due to abuse. There’s always some decent looking guy who is the cause of this pain, there’s always some old all-knowing matriarch who helps guide the story, and — of course — the notorious bad wigs.
On January 17th, in partnership with Netflix, Tyler Perry released his new film A Fall from Grace. The story follows public defender Jasmine Bryant as she uncovers what really happened to her client Grace Waters, a woman who is facing life in prison after allegedly murdering her husband Shannon.
Thus far, there have only been 12 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes — 8 rotten against 4 fresh — giving the film a 33% rating. Conversely, the IMDb rating falls at a 6 out of 10 from 144 reviews. The one to two-star reviews range from scathing to downright hilarious:
“This is basically if an intern at the Hallmark channel was forced to write a law and order episode… In 5 days.”
“ The whole thing was written so badly and has numerous holes in the story, characters seeming dimwitted and lacking common sense. An unrealistic and unremarkable attempt at a compelling drama”.
The following is from someone who rated the movie a 9 out of 10 but still had their own discrepancies about the way it was produced:
“The movie did come off like a low budget project. With Perry’s [experience] you’d think Netflix would have given him a better budget or he would have cared to spend a little more money.”
It’s true. Tyler Perry and his cast revealed that they only spent 5 days filming A Fall From Grace. I assume this was stated as a comment of praise, but it was soon used to fuel the fire of already tough critics. Seeing that there have been numerous plot holes, inconsistencies, and errors pointed out by both fans and critics — somehow it all makes sense when realizing less than a week of time was spent filming the movie in its entirety.
To give perspective, on average it takes anywhere between 45–60 days to shoot a Feature Film. That is without significant special effects or complicated shots, and it also doesn’t include time spent on pre-production.
It is unsure whether or not Perry and his crew spent 5 days filming because they had to, or because he viewed it as some sort of accomplishment. It is also unsure what type of budget was assigned to Perry’s new film, or if the multihyphenate purposely wanted to cut costs. Many of the critiques site that the film looks intensely low-budget.
A Clear Divide
Of course, the reviews are not all bad. With all the experience Tyler Perry has under his belt, he has been able to develop voice and storylines that appeal to his target audience. In his exclusive interview with Level, Perry reveals that — though he absolutely hated playing the role of Madea — he owes it to the character for building a $2 billion franchise.
Tyler Perry Is Ready to Defend Himself
The writer-director hears everything you say about him — and he’s got answers
The interview covers a number of topics but also hones in on the controversy that is his lack of a writer’s room. He has written all of his material, including his newest work A Fall From Grace. On one side, this type of work ethic is extremely admirable. Creative writing is an art but it also takes a lot of time, patience, and discipline. For one man to be able to consistently crank out screenplays or a television series in two weeks is remarkable.
However, such an achievement is questioned when there are consistent citings of plot holes, no continuity, and questionable dialogue.
“ Black people sometimes don’t want certain colors of Black people represented. I come from those colors and I’m never ashamed of my stories. I do not now — nor have I ever — cared if people get it or not.”
The quote from Tyler Perry’s interview with Level does bring up an excellent point. When we think of a Tyler Perry fan, who is the person that typically comes to mind? Usually, we may imagine this:
- Middle Aged or Elderly Black person (50+)
- Born and raised in the South
- Black [Baptist] Christian
- Traditional / Conservative viewpoints
Now, what is the image we think of when it comes to a Tyler Perry “anti-fan” so to speak? It may be something like
- Young Black Person under the age of 40
- Regional background varies
- Academic / Attended a 4-year college
- Moderate to Liberal viewpoints, regardless of religious upbringing
This may not be the case of everyone else — but as for me and my social media timeline — I could see a clear distinction between those who raved about the movie and those who wish they didn’t bother watching it at all.
What is Perry’s Objective?
I think this is the question that a lot of people have when it comes to the work of Tyler Perry. His plays, films, and television shows all tell a specific category of Black stories, this much we know.
Perry has stated that he doesn’t feel the need to change his machine when millions of people already enjoy his work.
I found that phrasing in itself very interesting. I hardly ever hear filmmakers or writers refer to their process of creating their work as “a machine”. However, seeing him phrase it this way does give me a different perspective on how Perry operates in comparison to a lot of other writers.
Pondering over this, I would say it definitely is like a machine. Tyler Perry may be a writer, producer, and director, but more important than that — he is a businessman. He has directed and produced more than 30 movies, 20 stage productions, and eight television shows, bringing his net worth to be about $600 million.
After finding his niche and target audience, rather than working to evolve and expand his reach he honed in on speaking to that audience. This could mean less attention being spent on intricate and unique storylines and more attention being placed on rapidly pushing out content in which his audience has given a positive response. In this regard, his resistance to a writing staff and variation makes sense.
When we go to a fast food place like McDonald’s, we’re obviously not looking for gourmet burgers. In all honesty, most of us could make a better burger at home with our own grills. If that’s the case, then why did the restaurant make $21 billion in revenue in 2018 — in just the United States alone? It’s because the corporation has created a consistent system — a “machine” if you will — that gets the people what they want. It’s quick, it’s easy, and most importantly: you know exactly what to expect when you get it. Perry’s audience has grown used to his style and they know what to expect when they tune into his content.
I’ve often heard people compare his work to Hallmark movies. Millions of people tune into Hallmark movies, especially during the holiday season. Are the plots repetitive? Is the dialogue sappy? Do they recycle the same circle of actors? Do they possess problematic themes like women constantly setting aside dreams and goals in order to pursue a more traditional life? The answer to all of these questions: Hell yes. But we still watch them because they’re enjoyable. Even if a film or television show isn’t fundamentally “good”, it can still be very enjoyable.
I’m not sure how Perry would feel about me comparing his body of work to fast food or Hallmark movies, but it’s really boils down to his objective.
If his objective is to make a lot of money, then he’s doing exceptionally well. If his objective is to create content that an underrepresented community can enjoy, he’s doing great with that too. But if his objective is to bring forth quality works of cinematic art…it is debatable on whether or not he’s doing a great job. That’s something that can be left for the viewers to decide.
We are Not a Monolith
It’s something that I have to reiterate on multiple occasions. Black people — just like any other group of people — will not be in agreement with everything all of the time. We are all individuals with the ability to think freely and determine what is or isn’t good for us.
I can listen to Esperanza Spalding during my morning commute and listen to Meg the Stallion on the way back home. I can either curl up with a Toni Morrison novel in the evening or watch Friday for the 100th time. Is my level of Blackness determined by this?
I often hear blanketed statements like “Tyler Perry truly speaks to the Black audience” or “Tyler Perry is completely unable to relate to the Black audience”. However, why are we assuming that this ‘Black audience’ even wants the same thing out of their entertainment? Why aren’t we identifying the Black audience as a multi-layered group coming from all walks of life with various perspectives?
There are those of us who don’t mind some of the problematic nature of his work, and those of us who do.
I may no longer tune in or enjoy Perry’s work like I used to, but I’m also not going to call somebody a coon for enjoying everything he puts out.
Just the same, I expect that his avid fans respect the fact that his work doesn’t appeal to all of us and we have every right to critique as we please. It doesn’t make us “crabs in a bucket” or “haters”, it simply makes us individual thinkers who know what they want to get out of their entertainment.
Personally, it would be nice to see Perry’s work evolve and speak to different sectors of the Black community. However, he’s also not at all obligated to fix a machine that is not broken for him financially. So long as he has that niche audience to rely on, he will always find success in his work.
Still, at the very least I wish he would stop with the bad wigs.