I think Tyler Perry is a bad artist. He is bad at art. He tries to make movies that are good, but he makes movies that are bad, and sometimes his movies are bad in a way that I consider dangerous. Perry constructs his own moral code and then punishes women (black women), violently, for violating it. He exploits rape and HIV as cheap rhetorical tools to further his regressive agenda. He populates his films with goofy stereotypes and menacing caricatures of black Americans and then invites white audiences to internalize and mock them. He straps on a fat suit and swans around as a grotesque parody of a black matriarch. I think he is bad. And earlier this month, I said so.
Joshua Alston at the AV Club wrote an incisive essay dissecting the ways in which white critics have historically (fearfully, he says) let Tyler Perry off the hook. But with the release of Temptation, Alston writes, "For the first time white critics are taking earnest swings at the Perry piñata."
Perry’s films have been scrutinized plenty, but the white writers who dominate film criticism have offered analyses that, while largely negative, skip across the surface and ignore the depth. It’s difficult to imagine a review of, say, Spring Breakers that doesn’t at least flick at the movie’s underlying messages and cultural ramifications. But even as Perry’s films have had criticism heaped on them, he’s had the luxury of being bashed solely for his films’ hamfisted writing, paint-by-numbers plotting, and visual blandness. Never before Temptation have this many white critics taken care to blast the troublesome, underlying message of a Perry film, completely independent of its artistic or technical shortcomings.
Pre-Temptation, Alston says, whenever white critics tackled Perry, they were careful to hedge—to soften the blow with blandly supportive pap or caveats about how Perry seems like a "nice guy." They fixated on the nuts and bolts of Perry's shoddy filmmaking so they could fill column inches without having to wade into the much riskier territories of black Christian bigotry and Perry's violence against black women. They abdicated responsibility for the conversation, leaving the real work of dissecting Perry to black critics (and if there's one person I want speaking for me ideologically, it's Armond White). Because if white critics do wade in, they face the circled wagons of Tyler Perry superfans who invariably deliver, in Alston's words, "a backlash that calls [white critics], at best, wrong for the task at hand, and at worst, racist." When it came to previous Perry productions, Alston says, white critics hid behind a meticulously constructed screen of friendly, paternalistic bewilderment (we call it "cultural sensitivity") in order to avoid being yelled at on the internet.
But all of that changed with Temptation.
Temptation has given white critics free rein to trash Perry with impunity, because it allows them to skirt the racial implications of the work, and instead go after his harmful messages about HIV and women’s bodies. Even that is kind of an accident; the reaction to Temptation doesn’t exist in a bubble. The movie was released less than two weeks after the verdict came down in the Steubenville rape case. Any other time, Temptation might have won the types of confused, perplexing mainstream reviews Perry’s movies usually get, but at a time when rape and the politics of women’s bodies were commanding the zeitgeist, Temptation’s implication that women are complicit in their victimization by men couldn’t have been a more unwelcome message. It was so unwelcome, it was enough to encourage white critics, who are generally all too happy to stay out of the knottier conversations about Perry’s work, to attack once the dialogue moved to a topic they felt more comfortable engaging.
I can't speak for other white critics, but, for me, YUP. Nailed it! Alston's analysis is so accurate that it borders on creepy, and if I kept a diary I would run home and change its tiny lock (and add extra hexes). But even though I agree with Alston 100%, I also agree with a cautious approach.
I don't just write about film; I write about culture and feminism and the big picture. And I can't just divorce myself from context and, you know, cease being a white lady for a few minutes so I can write "objectively" about Tyler Perry. I have to write about Tyler Perry as a white lady. To indulge in a clumsy metaphor, feminism isn't an outfit I put on and take off piece by piece—it's one of those fucking weird spandex bodysuits that the kids are into these days. I can't just take off my anti-racism boots and go tromping around on the internet with impunity. I have to take it all into account at once, because I said I would.
It's not healthy to suppress or avoid cultural debate, but it's also not healthy to ignore situational realities. Being cognizant of inequality doesn't mean literally treating everyone the same, because everyone's experience isn't the same. To act otherwise is to pretend that history and prejudice and systemic imbalances aren't real. You might as well announce that you "don't see color" because your cousin dated a Lebanese guy once. In a roundabout way, to treat everyone equally is to deny inequality.
History is not lacking in privileged white voices like mine paternalistically shutting down artists of color. So, sure, I've been cautious in my approach to Perry over the years, because white people stepping in and telling black artists how to tell their stories the "right" way is an act laden with cultural baggage that actively hurts people. I don't want to hurt people. Caution is not the same as fear, and I don't regret caution.
Particularly regarding Perry's Madea films, it's always been clear to me that he was filling a social need to which I fundamentally could not relate. I am accustomed to seeing myself and my experiences validated in media. I am not a middle-aged working-class black Christian woman. White critics need to listen at least as much as we talk. Not everything requires my opinion, and some things just aren't mine. I'm not going to step in and tell marginalized people who finally have one guy—just ONE GUY—making stories that speak to them (even imperfectly!) on a mainstream blockbuster scale that their dude's shit is stupid and they need to cut it out. "Get better taste," says the white lady. "Hey, have you guys seen Arrested Development?" (Eons back in my ideological evolution, I did write an unbearably clumsy review of Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns in 2008—complete with precisely the kind of nervous hedging that Alston references. Please don't go read it. I'm begging you.)
But then Temptation came along. And it reached a critical mass of awfulness (and exposure—it was marketed as a mainstream blockbuster drama, not a niche Christian film) that I just couldn't ignore. Alston is correct: Temptation was an opportunity for me to compartmentalize my opinions about Tyler Perry and tackle him on ground where I actually have credible footing. I am a credible voice on misogyny and rape. I am a credible voice on STIs and religious extremism. I've written plenty about racism as it applies to white people (if I were afraid of being called a racist on the internet, I'm in the wrong business), because I am a credible voice on white people. But I am not a credible voice on how Tyler Perry's work affects the black community internally. I am not a credible voice on how Tyler Perry makes black people feel (good or bad). And to assume that I am is to fundamentally undermine the way I've committed myself to navigating the world. Maybe that looks like fear, but it feels like responsibility.