I woke up this morning to see that Tyler Perry is being forced to defend himself against nasty allegations coming from Spike Lee. Spike has made it clear that he doesn’t appreciate what he perceives to be “coonery” in Tyler Perry films and TV shows. When I saw Perry flat out say that the accusations “pissed him off,” I thought, “Wow, now that’s an honest brother!”
I grew up on Spike Lee and I’ll always love him. I am also certain that images of black people singing, dancing and eating chicken certainly won Perry instant favor with the not-so-in-touch executives in Hollywood. But here are three reasons that Spike Lee might be wrong about Tyler Perry:
1) Tyler Perry is not all about Madea: I went onto BET a few times to talk about Hip Hop. My hoity-toity friends in academia (many of whom pride themselves on writing research papers for journals that nobody ever reads) criticized me for being “unscholarly” by talking to rappers. But my response was that hip hop culture has a dramatic influence on the young minds that I am trying to reach with education. You don’t get a baby to eat healthy by only forcing vegetables down his throat; you sprinkle sugar on the food to get the child’s attention. It’s not always a matter of forcing people to consume what they NEED – you should also be willing to let them have some of what they WANT. Every positive black movie doesn’t have to be a PBS special.
2) Tyler Perry’s films produce a diversity of images: The objective in black Hollywood is not for every black person to be presented in a perfect light. Lord knows that black people are not perfect. The objective is for us to have our humanity respected. That means accepting the fact that African Americans are as diverse as white Americans: we can be just as good, just as evil, just as brilliant and just as “ignant.” The image of the black man in media should not stop with Flavor Flav, but it doesn’t always have to be Barack Obama. For every Oprah Winfrey, it’s ok to throw in a “Hoochie mama.” Media should present a mixture of all images that exist across the spectrum. Perry does a good job with this in his films and Spike Lee should recognize that.
3) Sorry, but Spike Lee is not the Godfather of Black Cinema: As much as Spike might seem to feel that Tyler Perry needs his blessing to be successful, the truth is that he does not. The same was true when Muhammad Ali realized he did not need the approval of Joe Louis, and the protestors of the 1968 Olympics ignored the words of Jesse Owens. Spike is “the man” and an amazing talent, but Tyler Perry has created his own legendary impact on the world. Sometimes, if we take a difficult and excessively disciplined route to our success, we can be tempted to become bitter toward those who find a simpler solution. Also, Spike Lee’s implied notion that the many educated and uneducated black folks who see Tyler Perry’s movies can’t identify buffoonery on their own is somehow insulting to the intelligence of the African American community, if not a bit self-righteous. I’ve seen Tyler Perry’s films and I liked them. What makes matters worse is that I didn’t want to like them: I watched them with a skeptical eye, and I still found myself laughing, crying and thinking deeply at the end of each film. Tyler Perry is good, and Spike Lee might as well accept that. Just let the brother do his thing.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and author of the forthcoming book, “Black American Money.” For more information, please visit www.BoyceWatkins.com.