Tyler Perry's Defense: Why the Filmmaker Deserves Our Respect

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Tyler Perry’s latest directorial endeavor, the erotic drama “Tyler Perry's Temptation," opens in wide release this Friday, and like every Perry film since 2006’s “Madea’s Family Reunion”, it will not be screened in advance for critics. Studios typically forgo press screenings only as a kind of desperate protective measure, shielding films with precarious reputations against audience-persuading pans. In Perry’s case one can hardly blame the policy: his thirteen films to date, which have generated a combined box office total of more than 661 million dollars, have an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 34%.

His most warmly received effort, 2009’s “I Can Do Bad All By Myself”, has the dubious distinction of a career-best score at a meager 62%—so far his only film designated by the aggregator as “fresh” and only one negative review away from being redesignated “rotten”. It’s very likely, based on the consistency of these numbers, that “Temptation” will do tremendous business this weekend while receiving uniformly poor reviews, events which in the eight years since the release of Perry’s debut have become remarkably predictable. These are the two knowable facts of the industry: Audiences love Tyler Perry films. Critics, for whatever reason, do not. At all.

It’s gotten to the point where, in the world of film criticism, Perry’s lucrative brand is considered a kind of insider joke, dismissed without need for further consideration. The release of a new Perry property is treated by most critics as simply an occasion to mock his enduring popularity, to lament the impoverishment of the American cinema and the indiscrimination of paying audiences, with the widespread denunciations sounding not only vitriolic but, more disconcertingly, outright condescending. You’ll read, for instance, that “reviewing Tyler Perry’s movies feels more like filing a witness report”, or, in a strikingly similar turn of phrase, that “reviewing a Tyler Perry film is a bit like reviewing the weather report”. His films are described as “terribly shot and crudely assembled”, characterized by a “Lifetime network aesthetic” that are “pedestrian”. (Even the positive reviews have a tendency to defer to audience expectations over critical engagement, suggesting that while the films themselves aren’t especially good, fans of the house style are likely to find something to enjoy—a failing of criticism if ever there were one.)

More problematic is where the cold reception begins to be informed, even implicitly, by race. It’s all too often that Perry is either brushed off as a black filmmaker making “urban” films for a decidedly niche audience or, even worse, reproached for somehow giving the black cinema a bad name—as when one critic felt it “just disappointing that the most successful African-American filmmaker of his generation refuses to try any harder” and another asked, quite smugly, if there isn’t “anything better for urban-marketed movies than this dreck”. It would be a fool’s errand to suggest that Perry’s poor reputation among American film critics is the result of some tacit racial bias underlying his reception, but it’s incredible how consistently issues of race emerge in the criticism. Even on a basic level, his films are mischaracterized by comparisons drawn on obviously racial grounds: of the poetic drama “For Colored Girls”, for instance, one critic observes that you could “stick a Wayans brother in there and could call it “Tragic Movie””, while another critic says, of a different Perry film, “it’s “Barbershop” with bigger bucks”.

Perry’s films have literally nothing in common with either a Wayans parody or the “Barbershop” franchise, meaning the only point of comparison is that they are films directed by people of color and intended, so much as any film can be, for predominantly non-white audiences. Same goes for a critic’s claim that “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” is “like a cross between “Big Momma’s House” and “The Klumps””, as though no white man has ever dressed in drag for comedic effect.

This is not to say that all critics have deliberately misunderstood or misrepresented the work of Tyler Perry, and surely there are legitimate reasons why many intelligent viewers deign to reject these films on their own terms. But when seemingly unanimous derision finds itself directed toward a traditionally marginalized voice—and when white critics make such inexplicable statements as “It becomes clear why Oprah is such a huge Perry fan”—it’s worth opening the discourse up to considerations of representation and, even more importantly, to take stock of the criticism and reconsider where one stands. I discovered Tyler Perry rather late, when I was assigned to cover last year’s “Madea’s Witness Protection” and felt I ought explore the back catalog for the sake of due diligence, and I went into the filmography with a lot of unfounded preconceptions. My sense of Perry’s filmography had been shaped its (by that point quite solidified) critical reputation, and, quite frankly, I accepted the review assignment under the presumption that I’d be handing down a certified pan.

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But then, as they say, a funny thing happened: I found myself enjoying Tyler Perry’s films. And not only enjoying them as passing entertainments, but actually moved by them as serious dramas, delighted by them as slapstick comedies, and generally excited by them as the work of a legitimate auteur. I began with “Madea’s Family Reunion”, his second film and first behind the camera, which serves as an ideal introduction to Perry’s strengths as a dramatist: at once a melodrama about a woman struggling to extricate herself from an abusive relationship with her fiance and, somewhat jarringly, a comic farce in which the titular matriarch helps raise a wayward child, it's a well-rounded film notable for its juxtaposition of laughs and gravity. The most singular quality of Perry’s films, and a recurring criticism in reviews, is their unexpected tonal oscillations, which finds his morality plays veering into light comedy and back again without warning. But Perry, to his credit, never has difficulty adjusting to the tempo of the scene, and his capacity to effect such drastic changes of tone within the same film (and sometimes within the same scene) makes him a rather unique talent.

Though nearly every one of his films is defined by that confluence of styles, it’s clearly at its most effective—and perhaps most varied—in “Family Reunion”, both his funniest and most touching film. Here Perry proves himself an assured, competent filmmaker, a strong director of actors and unfussy visual stylist; far from being “crudely” shot or adopting a “Lifetime network aesthetic”, the film is often quite lush and sensual, showing an eye for dramatic lighting and clean, simple compositions. He possesses an exceptional sense for conveying on-screen intimacy, as in an elegant sequence which finds a young couple painting and reciting poetry together at an artists’ nightclub. But he also a real knack for comedic timing, both as a filmmaker—his flair for sight gags is a testament to this skill—and as a performer, taking on the role not only of the much-loved Madea but of her grumpy husband, too. Some of the funniest scenes find Perry slinging barbs back and forth with himself in costume, often mediated by the straight-man lawyer Brian...also played by himself.

I was pretty hooked after “Family Reunion”, a film whose earnestness about family values found a comfortable middle-ground between religious conservatism and progressive empowerment (many critics attempt to take Perry to task for his Christian convictions, but his sensibility is much too soft-shoe to come off as didactic). Happily, every other Perry film offers, to varying degrees of success, more or less identical pleasures. At his least compelling, such as the largely prosaic sequel “Why Did I Get Married Too?”, his films still have the virtue of giving strong dramatic roles to great performers, especially the wide range of young black women with whom Perry frequently works (and with whom he works wonders). And his best he’s making some of the strongest melodramas since Douglas Sirk and the funniest broad comedies since Jerry Lewis. The mid-career “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” remains a high-water mark for Perry’s style of magnetic drama, engaging in an interesting way with issues of class and co-dependence.

But my favorite to date is last year’s “Good Deeds”, a more straightforward drama (absent Madea or a comparable slapstick figure) about the relationship which develops when a wealthy CEO tries to help the working-class single mother employed as his overnight custodian. It’s a film with an uncommonly perceptive conception of adult relationships—it features an engagement that’s called off, not because either party is culpable or morally superior, but when the two fully realized characters maturely decide they’re better off alone—and a film that, like “All By Myself”, is honest about the difficulties facing single parents, an unfashionable subject in Hollywood that Perry deals with frequently and admirably.

Tyler Perry’s new film is about issues of infidelity, and if his filmography is anything to go on, it will likely deal with ideas about trust and bonding and the desire to have more in an earnest, adult way. And, if his filmography is anything to go, it will likely be dismissed out of hand by nearly every critic in North America before going on to score big at the box office. It’ll be the same story early next year when “Single Moms Club”, his upcoming film about single mothers bonding over an incident at school, isn’t screened for critics and is lambasted harshly in turn. And so on, and so forth. It isn’t clear exactly why the critical institution is so deeply averse to Perry’s brand of filmmaking, especially given how much vacuous nonsense gets a free pass for being marginally diverting for two hours, but there’s obviously something about the material that seems immediately galling. Thankfully, the movies themselves are, as they say, veritably critic-proof, raking in enough money to continue being produced at the same steady clip. One hopes that, over time, the critical taboo will dissipate, Perry’s filmography will be reconsidered and his best films thoughtfully reclaimed.