Tyler Perry and the New Black Revivalism

On February 24, 2006, Tyler Perry’s film version of his play Madea’s Family Reunion opened number one at the domestic box office. At the time I was an intern at a Manhattan based independent feature production house. Perry’s success was bizarre to anyone unfamiliar with his previous work and reputation. I was assigned to research who this man was and how with such limited exposure he was able to secure the greatest financial achievement of an American filmmaker.

What I found was a remarkable story of a man who overcame a traumatic childhood, who pursued his dreams with incorrigible conviction, and who staged one of the greatest rises to fame in American entertainment history. More important than the man himself, however, is what the man represents. Tyler Perry’s success is rooted in the loyalty of his black audience, the parents who brought their kids, the women who brought their friends, to the original stage interpretations of his original work. From the strength of his success as a playwright, Tyler Perry mounted a coup of Hollywood that underscored the massive division between mainstream expectations of the black community and the tastes and preferences of black consumers themselves.

Through the nineties and early naughts the most commercially successful depictions of black America on film were predominantly comedies. Friday, Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, Barbershop, Baps, The Nutty Professor. The list goes on. It seemed the established paradigm became that mainstream audiences would only support broad comedies with ticket sales that would later justify the production houses’ investment in the projects. Why make an edgy product with limited crossover appeal if there’s no money in it?

The success of Madea’s Family Reunion revealed that the audience for black movies was larger than Hollywood expected. The audience didn’t grow miracuously at the beginning of 2006; Tyler Perry simply tapped into a different model of entertainment for black consumers, a model akin to a new Black Revivalism.

Revivalisim is an evengelical Christian term used historically to refer to the movements of the 18th and 19th Century that swept across colonial, and later, industrializing America. It was a populist religious message steeped entirely in Protestant Christianity that translated the Gospel from the stuffy interpretation of the Vatican to the everyday speak of the American Plains. Massive tents were mounted in town after town as Ministers and their “revivals” proselytized to millions of Americans in their own backyards. The message was predominantly conservative and not so different from the Evenglical agenda of today’s Christian right. Politics were not the point, however. The point was the advocacy of Christianity as the salve for contemporary problems. The message, in itself, was the end game.

The success of Tyler Perry and his brand isn’t too different. Perry amassed a tremendous audience and fan-base through the popularity of his early stage shows, which, after original runs, would tour the nation, selling out theaters from Atlanta to DC to New York. What’s important is that Perry accomplished this with nominal support from the mainstream press or distribution network. Word-of-mouth drew people to his plays. Black radio publicized the latest staging in the downtown theater. It was the communal atmosphere of Perry’s shows and the link they provided audiences in Chicago who told their cousins to see Madea’s Class Reunion when it came through St. Louis that packed theaters and made Tyler Perry a marquee name that you or me had never heard of. Early audiences owned a part of each show and the financial success of Perry’s regional theater endeavors further underscore the problems with the corporate “Disneyfication” of supposed reputable theater communities like Broadway. Tyler Perry built a brand, a name and an empire beneath the noses of people in Hollywood who for years struggled to capitalize on the growth of hip-hop culture and the demographic increase of blacks in America. How, then, did Perry do so well without any institutionalized support? The answer, again, lies in the message.

For anyone who’s ever seen a Tyler Perry movie it won’t come as a surprise when I say they’re not good. Their stories are contrived, their technique is less than masterful, and their tone is heavy-handed. Subtlety is not Perry’s goal. Perry’s movies succeed where every Hollywood production marketed toward a black audience has failed. They are not post-modern; they are not ironic. They are genuine stories of love, loss and redemption told through conventional tropes unique to the American form of Black story-telling. At their core they are morality plays. It is the blatant Christian spirituality of Tyler Perry’s movies that make them as financially successful as they are. By steeping each of his film’s in Christian morality and developing characters who seek strength to become dynamic protagonists from God, Perry has tapped into a black narrative element that Hollywood has avoided for fears of alienating the mainstream.

By telling the stories relevant to his life, first on stage then on screen, Perry infused his brand with a religious element that is a deep part of the man himself, a man who on sets of his productions wears a T-shirt that warns that on his film shoots there is no swearing allowed. The conservative message of his films as well as the role of faith as a theme has allowed Perry to tap into a market long overlooked by Hollywood, the black middle class. Of course, buppies had been catered to in the Hollywood model through numerous movies about the affluent black man who must reform his womanizing ways in order to land the strong, independent, beautiful black female lead, but no one realized the tremendous market viability of the black family before Tyler Perry.

In September Perry is releasing his latest film The Family That Preys. Though the pun in the title implies a slightly more sinister story than has become expected from his canon, the overall message remains intact: Black men and women can survive by relying on both their faith and family for strength. It’s a simple thesis, but one no one thought would make millions, if not billions, of dollars through ticket and DVD sales. Say what you will about the merits of Tyler Perry the filmmaker, but his ability to discover an audience and feed their desires is the work of an auteur. By bringing attention to the overlooked middle class black consumer Perry has increased the clout and viability of the black identity in commercial cinema and the mainstream. A feat nothing short of Cosbian, and he did it by travelling the country with a few trucks filled with actors, props and scripts delivering his gospel of family and faith, the major tenants of a New Black Revivalism.

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