Tyler Perry had the same series of decision we all have growing up of how we let the environment we’re raised in define us.
The fact that Perry chose to overcome his circumstances rather than be smothered by them is a testament to perseverance and faith.
Perry was profiled by reporter Byron Pitts on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night. Everyday Christian reported last month how Pitts chronicled his upbringing in inner-city Baltimore with a single mother, speech disabilities and a healthy dose of faith in a new book.
Pitts’ background matched well for the piece on Perry, who grew up in a rough New Orleans neighborhood and overcame a physically and verbally abusive father. Perry was beaten repeatedly as a child, according to the story, including at least one instance where his skin was flailed raw by an electrical cord.
His solace came from going with his mother to church.
“Sunday mornings she would take me to church, and this was the only time I’d see her smiling and happy,” Perry related to Pitts. “I wanted to know the God this Christ had made my mother smile so much.”
His faith and business acumen have translated into his own movie studio in Atlanta which includes five soundstages, a gym and a chapel. His last eight films have grossed a whopping $418 million, but by his own admission, he is largely an unknown quantity to the majority of white Americans.
Madea is the central recurring character in his films, who Perry reverently described as a compilation of women he knew growing up who, “wore a mumu, curlers, watched everybody’s kids and didn’t take any crap.” Perry plays Madea in the films.
Perry sees his superstar status in the African-American community – but limited elsewhere – as akin to what he termed the “chitlin circuit,” where entertainers such as Ray Charles and Duke Ellington established themselves by playing to the heart and soul of their cultural base.
It begs the question, though, when African-American talent has been so widely accepted in wide swaths of the entertainment industry over the past 20 years, why is Perry still drawing a largely black audience?
Part of the explanation from the queen of crossover, Oprah Winfrey, who is pitching in on Perry’s new production out next month, “Precious.” It is a screen adaptation of a novel about an abused teenage girl.
“He is not some lucky rich Negro turned black man,” Oprah said. “To be able to take what he saw as an opportunity, reach a group of people and to turn this into this multi-million, soon to be multi-billion, dollar enterprise is what everybody else is trying to do.”
She added that the strong female head of household in African-American families is a commonality many people can relate to. Perry introduces viewers to some of these same people when he ventures to New Orleans with Pitts, chuckling, “These are the type of women I grew up with, Christian women with guns.”
And this is where I add a mea culpa. I have heard of Tyler Perry of before and even seen bits and pieces of his “House of Payne” sitcom on TBS. That’s about it.
If that’s your impression of Perry, too, it may be time for further investigation into what we’ve missed to get a better handle on why so many people adore him, and to foil criticism.
Pitts read a quote from Spike Lee, an African-American director I’m very familiar with, most of whose films I’ve seen and generally liked to varying degrees.
Lee finds Payne’s characters to be racist stereotypes.
“We’ve got a black President, and we’re going back,” Lee said, according to Pitts. “The image is troubling and harkens back to ‘Amos and Andy.’”
Perry took umbrage at those remarks as a filmmaker and more poignantly as a Christian.
“I can slap Madea in something and talk about God, love, faith forgiveness, family, any of those things. That pisses me off, it really does. It’s so insulting. It’s attitudes like that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist and that’s why there’s no material speaking to them, speaking to us.”