The Simple Math of Tyler Perry
Since it opened April 22, Madea’s Big Happy Family has made $40.9 million. Why Did I get Married? — that made $55.2 million. The sequel? $48.5 million. Madea Goes to Jail? $90.5 million. And that’s just a handful of Tyler Perry’s films; in six years, his films have racked up more than half a billion dollars, averaging $50 million per movie, and that’s before his current film finishes its theatrical run. Still, his works have become quite a bone of contention, concerning race, gender, class, media consumption, and the definition of quality, and auteurism.
Personally, being a black person in America, I can tell you that black people in Georgia are very different from black people in New York, and they’re different from black people in Chicago, and they’re different from black people in Los Angeles. As much as people like to homogenize us, there is no doubt that black people are just as diverse as any type of people.
So when Tyler Perry (Atlanta) had a hissy fit, and told Spike Lee (Brooklyn) that he could go straight to hell, there was a lot of context behind his words. Lee had been slamming Perry in the press for a while, and called his work “coonery and buffoonery” — I’m not going to lie, I agree with Spike, for the most part. In retaliation, Perry said the following, to expand upon what he meant by “Spike can go straight to hell!”:
“Madea is a cross between my mother and my aunt. She’s the type of grandmother that was on every corner when I was growing up,” Perry said. “She smoked. She walked out of the house with her curlers and her muumuu and she watched everybody’s kids. She didn’t take no crap. She’s a strong figure where I come from. In my part of the African-American community. And I say that because I’m sure that there are some other parts of the African-American community that may be looking at me now going, ‘Who does he think he’s speaking of?’ But, for me, this woman was very, very visible.”
To make films is to reveal something that lies in truth, even the most far-fetched, ridiculous slices of film connect to viewers because of the truth that it tells. Madea and all of the crazy characters in her world are Tyler Perry’s truth. Now, I’ve seen a few of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies — they are not artistic gems. I give him credit for adapting For Colored Girls to the screen. This seminal play was so important for its time, and, if done really well, could have adapted well for 2010. Still, it wasn’t. It was laughably melodramatic — nuance isn’t exactly Ty-Ty’s forte.
But still, Tyler Perry does many good things with his success:
1. He is employing a LOT of people, on and off screen. In 2008, Perry purchased a studio in Atlanta, which was the site of the old Delta Airlines headquarters. He has two successful television shows on the air, which employ writers, producers, directors, actors, artistic and technical crew, camera operators, interns, etc. The dude is creating jobs.
2. More specifically, a lot of nameless black actors and actresses, who tend to face obstacles in casting (outside of Sassy Judge, or Sassy Waitress, or Sassy Black Lady at Grocery Store) can shine on camera thanks to the fact that Tyler Perry reaches out to cast loads of people.
3. He’s proving that black people do go to the movies — let’s face it, the people of Fargo, N.D. are probably not packing in the theater to see Madea’s silly antics. This is contrary to the fear that black people don’t have enough financial clout at the movies .
4. Without Perry and Oprah teaming up to be executive producers of Precious, would it have received the same acclaim and box office pull? I think it would have simply been another indie hit that made critics take notice, but that’s about it.
Spike Lee is a skilled auteur. With movies like Do The Right Thing, Bamboozled, He Got Game, Malcolm X, and Miracle at St. Ana, Lee has made influential films that have contributed to the greater American culture. He’s also somewhat of a Hollywood outsider, for the most part, with a home-grown studio in Brooklyn (which, yes, employs people), and his indie status allows him more flexibility to take on non-blockbusters, and passion projects. Still, his films, as of late, have not brought in the same big financial wins. And in a sense, Lionsgate more or less allows Perry a seemingly great amount of creative control, but he is still beholden to a major studio, where the bottom line is money. Granted, it’s also difficult to understand the amount of creative control he truly has — if he were to pitch an experimental black-and-white drama with four POVs showing at once shot in Antarctica, would he run into major roadblocks?
Here’s some simple math:
– According to the U.S. Census, there are currently 311 million people in the U.S.
– 12.9% (or 37.3 million) of those Americans are black
– Let’s say that 5% (or 1,850,000) of black Americans went to see a movie, at the average movie theater price of $8.01:
That’s $14.8 million total. Not a terrible haul for half of one percent of the entire United States, especially considering this is only an account of the black population showing up to see one film. That’s a pretty decent return for a small-budget film, if it gets a wide release. And we know that Perry draws in much more than 5% of black people. Quite frankly, this is a pretty attainable number for a major studio film…soooo, what’s the problem with these studios? I personally don’t understand the inhibition to not make movies about black people, or starring black people, unless they’re ridiculous bufoonery.
The fact of the matter is that Tyler Perry’s movies aren’t that good. I’ve seen Diary of a Mad Black Woman once while I was getting my hair done: groan-worthy. For Colored Girls was kind of a train wreck of over-acting by otherwise wonderful actresses; the story was created in a far different time, with a different definition of what it meant to be a black woman. And the tweaks to update the film were ridiculous, no matter how fierce Janet Jackson looked. While he has been improving, none of Perry’s films have become a real triumph of film making, even though he pulls in the big audiences from his theater days (though Madea Goes to Jail was a triumph in marketing, I think).
Is it O.K. that Perry continues to make so-so movies and that people go to see them in droves? I don’t know, but Michael Bay is handed script upon script to insert explosions, boobs, and idiocy. Bay delivers a big box office payout, and no one really cares that much. But the difference is that Tyler Perry is a black guy, making movies that feature black people. And in all honesty, there really aren’t a lot of movies with black leads, whereas every weekend there’s a different movie with explosions, boobs, and idiocy — they’re a dime a dozen. The real problem is that Tyler Perry now represents the entire population of African American film makers and theater goers. When there’s so few black people making movies, he’s held more accountable than anyone else.
So, my prescription is this: Tyler Perry should keep making movies (as though anyone is stopping him…). BUT, he should also help usher in new filmmakers, or those who have not yet caught a big break. Quite frankly, his name is worth its weight in gold, and lending his support to more films like Precious (or, you know, a comedy or something not so depressing) could help more film makers of all types make better movies that get seen by more people. Then, it won’t matter if one movie is just “meh” — when there’s a bountiful amount of diverse movies, the so-called failure rate won’t be so painful. I totally understand that Madea is Perry’s truth, but it isn’t my truth. So hopefully, more film makers and television creators can show the rest of the country that there’s no right or wrong when it comes to illustrating the black experience, but many truths.