Every once in a while I pose a question on Twitter and actually get some responses. Today was one of those days. I visited fellow blogger Average Bro’s website and I saw his story on the recent news that Tyler Perry raked in the most money in Hollywood for a year between 2010 and 2011, a nice sum around $130 million. Naturally, the black blogosphere had jumped on this a day before when the story broke and a fresh new round of criticisms about Tyler Perry were refreshed. It’s as though we treat Tyler Perry like some wound that as soon as the scab begins to crust over, we pick at it again opening a fresh wound hellbent on making sure that we create a permanent scar.
The question coonery or comedy isn’t exactly a new one, and certainly not a new topic surrounding Tyler Perry and his brand of cinematography and small screen ventures. But, since Facebook is enjoying reminding its users of status updates from the past two years on any given day, I saw that this time last year I was encouraging and hoping the best for Tyler Perry as his screen adaptation of “For Colored Girls” was then soon to be released. For me, that was when the tide turned and I seriously stopped hatin’ on the guy and decided to congratulate him for his successes.
What I posed today on Twitter was:
You can’t criticize Tyler Perry and his Madea image if you think “Coming to America” and “Friday” are funny.
While many people went on to tell me how one could criticize one and not the other, I began thinking what constitutes coonery and what constitutes comedy. For a basic definition, fellow Twitter follower @Brandale2221 said to the effect that comedy is new jokes in new places and that coonery is old jokes in old places. While have some nuance differences with that statement, I think most people would agree to that; it sounds good.
Let’s be honest, black comedy has seen a number of “envelopes being pushed” throughout the ages. From the likes of Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson and LaWanda Page all the way to Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Adele Givens and Sheryl Underwood. We’ve seen many of these black stand up comedians and comediennes jump from the stage to the silver screen and small screen making cameo roles to even being Hollywood stars themselves. Many of them have shows and movies that particularly depict black culture and add to the conversation of what is blackness. For good or bad, they add to this image.
When the 1990s came around and we had safely moved away from the blaxploitation era of movies, the image of the Huxtables had easily began to dominate the scene, gangsta rap had fully emerged as a force to be reckoned with birthed out of the hip hop culture. This hip hop culture had given birth to movies such as “Coming to America” to “Boyz N Da Hood” and we saw television shows such as “Living Single,” “Martin” and “The Wayans’ Brothers” become top shows amongst black audiences. From black romantic comedies such as “Boomerang” to “Love Jones” showed an image of black love rarely seen on the big screen.
But none came out the gate swinging more than Spike Lee. Quintessential Spike Lee movies from that era still speak volumes for the black community and the purpose of this discussion: “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing.” [I would include Malcolm X in this list of quintessential movies, but since it's a biography, it doesn't quite fit the genre comparisons that I'm going for.] We hold Spike Lee and these movies as the paragon of what it means to be black, male, writer, director and producer–the holy trifecta of the Hollywood movie making industry.
Somewhere, sneaking under the radar came Tyler Perry.
Perry doesn’t fit the mold of any of the aforementioned black productions. His movies don’t achieve the level of political and racial consciousness of Spike Lee joints; they don’t exude the smooth romantic comedy vibe that was eloquently delivered in “Love Jones” and his movies certainly don’t fit the genre of the gangster movies such as “Menace II Society.” Tyler Perry came on the scene in a country that had survived 9/11 and in what some sociologists are already referring to as “the Lost Decade.”
The 20-aughts have seen the death of the live studio audience sitcom replaced by reality TV shows that take you from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the chef’s kitchens of Los Angeles and audiences will pay money to see human jackasses on screen play tortuous pranks on one another.
What better time for Tyler Perry to step on the scene.
Na’im Akbar, the acclaimed clinical psychologist, wrote in his book Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery even before we knew who Madea was, wrote about “the Wayans’ Brothers and “Martin” as coonin’. For me, personally, much of the comedy of Martin Lawrence on the show vascillated between comedy and coonery. A typical scene with him, Cole, and Gina and Pam all playing off one another when the plumber died in the apartment was sheer comedic genius. Watching Shenehneh Jenkins act a fool in the hallway was coonin’ to me.
Did I laugh? Sometimes.
A basic question I pose when I have this discussion is what’s the difference between Flip Wilson in a dress, Martin Lawrence in a dress, Jamie Foxx in a dress and Tyler Perry in a dress; what makes the first three comedy and the last one coonin’. One someone told simply that the first three are funny and that Perry isn’t. Well, what’s considered an appropriate emotional stimuli to overbalance neurological stressers that produce laughter is highly subjective–just because you think it’s funny doesn’t mean I will. But, to suggest that because one doesn’t find Tyler Perry funny automatically means it’s safe to call it coonin’ I think is disingenuous.
Tyler Perry isn’t a stand up comedian who made the crossover, but rather he’s a guy who has said that he’s trying to put forth a message about black culture. He didn’t go to school for filmmaking and he hasn’t been working in this area terribly long compared to other blacks in the industry. He’s overtly religious and spiritual in his films. All of these things make him a clear outlier from the other disparate writers, producers and directors. And he’s producing these movies in different cultural climate than the one’s we often compare him to–and he’s clear that he has a different target audience.
Much of what I fielded from criticisms about “The Help” are much of what I see in criticism of Perry that are levied against him. ”The Help” as a movie, never set out to tell a gripping tale of black domestic life in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, it set out to be an entertaining movie about black domestic life in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. Perry, clearly unlike Spike Lee, never set out to tell stories about racial and political injustices–nuanced and blatant–or a clear and pointed view of black culture. Perry, at best from what he’s said in interviews, set out to tell tranche de vie stories about blacks with basic human uplift themes–he just wasn’t trying to be all that deep.
And boy did he suceed.
Yes, Tyler Perry’s movies and sitcoms are bland at best. The plots of his movies fall marvelously flat like a cake in a oven on the set of The Bozo Show; a horrible, tired and staid punchline that you can see coming a mile away. The acting leaves a lot to be desired, and the writing is bad. It’s so bad that to see the likes of Angela Bassett and Lynn Whitfield have deliver some of those words is truly cringe worthy. The level of comedy of the sitcoms “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns” is on par with that of a 1st grade Christmas pageant.
But, Tyler Perry has made power move after power move and for that alone, I celebrate what he’s been able to do. What makes him and Spike Lee comparable is that, to my knowledge, they are the only two black people in Hollywood who comprise all aspects of writing, directing and producing–and acting–in their full-length productions. Most times in Hollywood you find black directors and black writers, but to have black producers who also own their own production company is what incurs the wow factor. While yes you have the Smith’s (Will and Jada) who have their own production company, if one looks at the credits you’d see in Spike Lee and Tyler Perry films, they’re not sharing the rights of production with anyone else but themselves.
That’s some Steven Spielberg type ish!
I guess the next power move for Tyler Perry is to start his own film distribution company to which I say more power to the brother as well!
As with things of this topic, if it’s something you seriously don’t consider to be comedy but view it as coonin’ just flip the channel, as I do when I see Ella’s short T-Rex arms appear on my screen in “House of Payne.” [SN: You know that's the same character hanging out the window of the girls dorm at Mission College yelling at Dap to go away?] And given the plethora of foolish images we as a black culture have dealt with in the past and are dealing with right now, I somehow think we’re overreacting. The vapid lyrics of “You Look Better With the Lights Off” from the New Boyz featuring Chris Brown or the anti-love song Miguel is crooning out saying “I Don’t Wanna Be Loved” and that he only wants a quickie–no bite marks, scratches or hickies please–I think has just as much an impact on how black culture is viewed as “Madeas Big Happy Family.”
In an age where Italians are reduced to the images of greasy haired mob bosses or guidos from the “Jersey Shore” and middle class white families paint their young daughters as hoes in training on “Teen Mom” I think Tyler Perry’s image of Madea is about right on target for the U.S. as we see-saw between life imitating art or art imitating life.
Slightly diverging from this line of thinking, but I think equally important in this entire conversation, no one ever questioned the sexuality of many of these previous comedians to the point and extent of Tyler Perry. Mind you, “Boondocks” did an ENTIRE episode openly criticizing this man’s sexuality. While the “Pause” episode was brilliant and stood in stark artistic difference to the production work of Perry himself, still, was it morally right for Aaron McGruder to do that? I think we, as a black community, have given ourselves a bit more of a green light to openly criticize the work of Tyler Perry and Tyler Perry himself because we feel that we are morally superior–we don’t go around acting super churchy all the time while dressed in drag, therefore we’re in a position of moral judgment. I dare say if Perry wasn’t so overly religious and spiritual in his films that some of the issue we may have with a man who’s 6’5″ dressed in drag would somewhat be allayed.
Still, does that make one’s criticisms less valid? I would say no, but as much as I’m always interested in authorial intent when I read novels, and works of non-fiction and certainly when I read the biblical text, I ask myself the same thing when it comes to entertainment. One criticisms are always valid, but what is the intent of your criticisms? Are they from a knowingly subjective vantage point or from a delusional and seemingly objective point of view? What bothers me is false objectivity. I have no problems with people being clear with their bias, but to ignore it, to me, bankrupts the value of your opinion.
For those who think I’ve evaded the question, for me, comedy is rooted in the intent of the artist. If the artist is simply pushing the envelope for the sake of laughter, then it’s comedy. Coonin’ is also rooted in the intent of the artist–if the artist is compromising an artistic integrity for the sake of laughter.
Failing to be, who you be, and be the best at it….you’re nothing more than a coon.
Keep it uppity and truthfully radical, JLL