Visit any Target or Wal-Mart in the American South, and there will undoubtedly somewhere be a Tyler Perry shelf. Row after row of inexpensive DVDs with the various movies in the Madea series, and compilations of TV series such as Meet the Browns and House of Payne. You know for sure you're dealing with Tyler Perry - not only because Madea (Perry himself in full drag as an elderly black woman) is such a visually arresting figure, but because everything Perry makes is headed up with his own name. It isn't "House of Payne", it's "Tyler Perry's House of Payne".
The branding is strong with this one.
Multimillionaire and megastar with one studio lot already and another in progress as he converts a nearby military base to being a huge production facility, Perry is a predictable and everpresent force churning out plays, series, comedies and movies.
Born in New Orleans in 1969 to a working class family where the father was prone to domestic violence, Emmitt Perry Jr. had a turbulent childhood. In between a violent home life he almost sought to leave via suicide, and molestation in his childhood by his mother's friend and two other men - the only solace young Emmitt found was the church his mother took him to. At 16 he changed his name to Tyler to escape any connection with his father, whose paternity would later be disproved by DNA testing anyway.
Tyler never finished high school, but instead earned a GED. Deciding to make writing his life's work after hearing about how healing he could be, he moved to Atlanta with his life savings and tried to stage his first play, based on some therapeutic letter writings to himself. It was a critical and financial failure, but Perry worked tirelessly and soon had sold a hundred million dollars' worth of tickets to his various plays. The movie and TV business further enriched him, but it was the hard work and prolific writing, churning through what was formerly known as the "Chitlin' Circuit" that made him who he is today.
His movies and plays aren't really that successful by critical standards - they tend to be dismissed by the Siskel and Eberts of the world. They're almost the McDonald's formula - predictable, safe, and conforming to expectations. I had pretty much figured out, for example, the ending to Madea goes to jail during the first five minutes. I've seen less telegraphed moves in pro wrestling. And yet, it is somehow incredibly admirable that Perry has managed to make what he has out of a limited market share. His movies almost never play outside of the United States, it's almost entirely a domestic and a minority audience that have helped him build his empire.
That's not to say he's not without his critics. Aaron McGruder of The Boondocks wrote an episode called "Pause" which made fun of Perry via the expy "Winston Jerome", running a cult-like operation with him as a cross-dressing confused Jesus freak, who put an argyle sweater on the giant crucified Jesus statue in his home "because he looked cold". McGruder sums up Tyler Perry thusly:
"The typical Winston Jerome movie starts with your beautiful educated professional black woman trapped in a troubled marriage with the brownskin bald dude from Law and Order.
Black Woman: How could you do this to me?
Brownskin bald dude from Law and Order: GET OUT! I'm gonna marry this white hussy, because you are too virtuous and strong and might make me a better man.
Then a dude who looks like Shemar Moore shows up as the shirtless lightskin gardner who just got out of jail.
Dude who looks like Shemar Moore: Scuse me, may I rake yo leaves?
At first she acts like she doesn't like the lightskin gardener. But eventually she gets to know him and sees his sensitive side.
Dude who looks like Shemar Moore: now I know to you I'm just a poor lightskinded gardener who can't afford a shirt, but I love me some Jesus, and I love me so you!
Black woman: Oh Lord thank you Jesus. I never thought I'd me with a man so loving and lightskin.
Dude who looks like Shemar Moore: And I will always be lightskinded just for you.
Being a good Christian woman, she gives her marriage one last chance because Jesus said so.
Brownskin bald dude from Law and Order: I am darkskinded and bald, so I hate YOU, and I hate Jesus.
Just when the brownskin guy from Law and Order is about to hit her, here comes the shirtless gardener.
Dude who looks like Shemar Moore: Hold it right there bald headed dude from Law and Order.
The woman and the gardener kiss, having found true love through Jesus."
Original here and worth the watch, especially for the ending.
Of course, the nature of Perry's work, which has been critiqued by everyone from McGruder, to Spike Lee, who referred to it as "coonery". Feminists have also taken issue with Perry, especially his in-drag depiction of matriarch "Madea". Noting that many black households are held together by strong women, they find it appalling that such a lynchpin of the community would be reduced to clownery and mockery. Also, disturbingly, is that a key character development moment in many plays has a previously emasculated-by-a-bad-woman man recover his dignity and manhood by slapping a woman "deservedly" across the face.
But sadly, images of emasculated, weak men and strong, clownish women sell, and sell furiously, and the criticism goes back and forth, "chicken vs. egg" as to whether or not Perry is helping continue or cause these stereotypes, or is merely selling audiences what it wants.
But sell is what Perry does, and does very well. His latest series, "The Haves and the Have Nots", is making Oprah Winfrey's network a lot of money. And when The Boondocks satirized Perry, his very angry response to Turner Broadcasting suggesting that maybe he might want to reconsider his relationship with the company - gave them pause. (TBS is responsible both for The Boondocks and showing several very popular Perry TV series).
But whether you love Perry or hate him, he is truly an American success story. From living in his car trying to scrape together his first show, to multimillionaire and inspiration to millions. He's a big player in the Atlanta area, and many a would-be playwright has followed in his footsteps, leading to a vibrant theater community in the city. One wonders how long Perry can keep mining the same field, though - as the generations who remember a Madea-like matriarch are dying off, and newer and more complex themes and family relationships replace the middle class black nuclear family as expressed on many a Tyler Perry show. But while the success lasts, there will be at least one generation of black actors, black writers, black directors and black production staff appreciating the work, never mind the millions who pay to see the plays and movies, glad of media that don't relegate them to minor sidekick status.