Tyler Perry’s Secret to Success

He makes movies for audiences everyone else ignores.

Tyler Perry with Jill Scott

Two weeks ago in Boston, a line formed outside a movie theater. The men and women in the line were waiting patiently. Many of them were well-dressed—a little bit churchy, a little bit board meeting. They were all black. (In Chicago, you don’t notice. In Boston, you do.) I had come to the theater to see a press screening of the new Farrelly brothers movie, The Heartbreak Kid, but I knew that’s not what this crowd was waiting to see. They were waiting for a sneak preview of Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, the director’s new romantic dramedy featuring, among a lot of other people, Janet Jackson. That night, I would have happily traded places with someone in that line.

Perry is a playwright, movie director, author, and occasional cross-dresser. He is also a bona fide star. But if a film critic is going to follow him, he has to do it as a fan. Lions Gate, the studio that releases his films, hasn’t screened any of his last three movies for the press, since critics trounced his Diary of Mad Black Woman three years ago. Lionsgate is happy to promote his films among black moviegoers, but they don’t invite critics, and they don’t really have to. Why Did I Get Married? was the No. 1 movie in America last week. Plus, Lionsgate doesn’t screen a lot of the movies it distributes, in particular the horror films it churns out. But any studio shameless enough to treat reviewers to Good Luck Chuck, a horror film masquerading as a comedy, should have no problem showing them an easy crowd-pleaser like Why Did I Get Married?

Then again, I don’t mind paying to see a Tyler Perry movie with a Tyler Perry audience. Hell, that’s half the fun: hearing a partisan crowd crack up, break down, suck its teeth, scream at the abusers, tsk-tsk the nincompoops, and, inevitably, go awww. (As the New York Times noted—twice—last weekend, Perry’s fans love talking back to his movies.) But keeping Perry away from the press reinforces the notion among critics that he doesn’t matter. Most major critics have committed more thought to the Saw and Hostel movies than to his.

Maybe Lionsgate assumes (not incorrectly) that many critics—present company excluded—are middle-aged white men who wouldn’t get his movies. Maybe it’s a directive from the director himself. Regardless, it feels discriminatory, and more important, it’s unfair to Perry. It’s true that Diary of a Mad Black Woman is loud and painfully preachy—like a church being dropped on your head. But while Perry wrote and starred in that movie, he didn’t direct it, as he has his three subsequent projects. And Madea’s Family Reunion, Daddy’s Little Girls, and especially  Why Did I Get Married? veer away from character types and get closer to how real people actually interact.

In particular, how black women interact. My favorite thing about Perry’s movies is the women in them, played by actors—Kimberly Elise, Gabrielle Union, Jenifer Lewis, Lynn Whitfield—whose talents are typically squandered by other directors. Why Did I Get Married? is a bonanza, even by Perry’s standards, with five juicy parts for the women to do with as they please. Perry may not yet have mastered fluid dramatic structure or where to put the camera, but he knows how to get out of the way of good and determined women. In fact, although his movies draw men and women alike, what Perry is making are really women’s pictures, the popular genre that reached its height in the 1940s, starred actors like Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, and melodramatically saw women through all kinds of modern crises, from deceitful daughters to the career vs. stay-at-home dilemma.

Perry uses the genre to deliver easily digestible hope. In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the message was: “Don’t let your man take your self-respect (or your house).” In Daddy’s Little Girls, it was: “Ladies, good men are out there. Even if they work under the hood of a car and have a bonkers baby mama, if he loves you, take him!” Black women, it turns out, are thrilled to see themselves in movies both as they live and as they aspire to live. The women who write in to tell me that I don’t adore Perry’s movies enough usually mention that his films give them hope for true love and greater success. I’ve never gotten that letter from a Martin Scorsese fan.

In Why Did I Get Married?, Jill Scott’s overweight, insecure character, Sheila, finally works up the courage not just to leave her nasty husband but to tell off the friend he cheated on her with. By the end of the picture, she also lets herself succumb to the advances of a new, inarguably decent man. As would be the case in any self-respecting women’s picture, Perry stages Sheila’s revenge at a fancy gala where, of course, she looks fantastic.    

Profiles of Tyler Perry tend to overlook his appeal to black women and focus instead on the role material items play in his movies. This isn’t entirely unwarranted. Perry himself is fond of boasting about all the things his lucre has bought him. (He recently told the New York Times he wanted to have his own island; I don’t think he was kidding.) Several dozen PETA activists would be required to throw paint on all the furs worn in Why Did I Get Married?, his most flagrantly fabulous film yet. The movie forgoes his usual city/country, buppie/ghetto clashes and instead draws a warm bath of soap-opera-worthy bougie melodrama. If the Luther Vandross songbook could be distilled into a two-hour movie, it’d probably look something like this.

But while Perry’s characters might live in a different tax bracket than most people, they’re also dealing with many of the same tribulations the rest of us are. The Tasha Smith character in Why Did I Get Married?, an outspoken owner of an upscale beauty salon, may have a nice lifestyle (she can take a week off for a mountain retreat), but she’s tired of carrying her underemployed husband. These movies are grappling with something fundamental about achievement. You can be successful, but no one gets away with being a snob. (This might be the true reason film critics are unwelcome.) In a Perry movie, no matter how recently you got your hair done, your roots are always showing.     

I used to have my issues with Perry. I used to find him frustrating because he wasn’t making art. Perry is not August Wilson, Charles Burnett, or Spike Lee, nor does he want to be. But he is well on his way to being America’s most important black entertainer. Perhaps the best comparison isn’t Lee, but Oscar Micheaux, the entrepreneur and pioneering black director of the early 20th century. He wasn’t a great filmmaker and his movies, which focused mostly on race, were always tinged with amateurism that critics described as shoddy or unsophisticated. But the public often responded, because, like Perry, he was a star who made movies for the black audiences whom Hollywood was either ignoring or mistreating. He didn’t talk over their heads; he spoke directly to them. Micheaux was barred from making movies in Hollywood. Perry also makes his movies more or less independently, but so he can make the movies he wants to make. He could probably have the conventional Hollywood success his forebears like Micheaux couldn’t, but, fascinatingly, he doesn’t want it. He’s doing fine on his own.