Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tyler the Creator

... or Who Says There's No Room for Junk-Food Movies in Black Cinema?

By Kris Kendall, special contributor to The Typing Monkey

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a 41-year-old white male, born and raised in a pale corner of the United States. I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry movie. I also stopped watching Spike Lee’s movies when, about halfway through Summer of Sam, I got bored and frustrated with the dull pace and stopped the DVD. Yes, I’m probably missing out on some worthwhile Spike Lee joints, but there’s plenty of time to get to 25th Hour, Bamboozled and Clockers.

I was in high school when She’s Gotta Have It came out and though I skipped School Daze, I watched Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues with enthusiasm. The former was tense and thought-provoking, the latter was too long by at least 15 minutes, with a coda that indicated Mr. Lee was suffering from a filmmaker problem I call “writer/director syndrome.” I know I saw Jungle Fever but it didn’t stick with me.

I have seen a few minutes of both Meet the Browns and House of Payne, the TBS sitcoms Tyler Perry produces. Neither show says anything to me about my life. Even though the broad comedy triggered a few chuckles, there was little there to keep me engaged.

Likewise, I’ve seen a few minutes of one of Perry’s Medea films and it fared worse for my attention span.

So what qualifies me to pontificate on Tyler Perry’s “worthiness” as a filmmaker? Nothing. In fact, you’re free to go read something else if you like. But on April 21, 2011 the NPR news program All Things Considered aired a short piece in which co-host Michelle Norris mediated a debate about Perry’s output and influence, between journalist Goldie Taylor and cultural critic Toure.

The topic was inspired by Spike Lee’s continued criticism of Tyler Perry’s films, prompting Perry to break his silence and finally respond. Lee and many other people – mostly black, but critics of various ethnicities have weighed in – think black film audiences deserve better.

And more to the point: The presumption that white viewers may see Perry’s alleged stereotypes of black characters and think this is representative of all black people. Why would I think that?

I’m not here to talk about Perry’s films because I haven’t seen any of them. I’m not even prepared to discuss Spike Lee’s films since I checked out on his output a good 15 years ago. And no, I won’t speak about the pros and cons of Perry’s hugely successful production company as it relates to representations of black culture in mass media. Not because I don’t have an opinion, but because others have done it and will continue to do it better than I can.

But in listening to Taylor and Toure’s point-counterpoint, especially the descriptions of the archetypally “black” characters (caricatures?) that appear in Perry’s movies, and his even more controversial musings on black women, I kept thinking: They’re describing the same kind of wide-appeal drivel that white filmmakers make about white people.

The Meet the Parents franchise, starring a you-can-do-better Ben Stiller is generally ignored or hated by plenty of people, but the first film made enough money to inspire two sequels. Somebody was watching it, and it wasn't me.

Likewise offensive fluff such as Wild Hogs will top the box office during opening weekend despite reviews that are less than favorable. That movie reflects nothing about my life experience either. I'm not part of its intended demographic any more than I am for Madea's Big Happy Family.

I could ramble on for twice my current word count regarding romantic comedies. Katherine Heigl, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Aniston and various other stars knock out dull romantic fantasies every year, sometimes two or three a year per star. Critics do ask if the rom-com lead is how (white) women want to be portrayed. Yet these rote relationship fairytales, while inspiring their share of vitriol, don’t engender the same kind of wide cultural debate.

Spike Lee, I get it. However, I don’t think Perry is perpetuating stereotypes any more than similar fare aimed at white audiences.

The problem seems to be more along these lines: I can count the number of mainstream black directors on one hand. It’s a small clubhouse and Perry’s detractors want every film to count.

That’s understandable, but it's also joining two very different debates and the dearth of black directors won't be alleviated by Spike Lee targeting Tyler Perry. If Perry's guilty of anything, it's of being successful using a formula older than Hollywood. [And of being a union buster? -- ed.]

There should be room for escapist fare that paints a simplistic or idealized version of life. Cinema doesn’t have to be provocative or contemplative. There’s enough room for Buster Keaton and The Three Stooges, room enough for Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Get on the Bus.

It’s okay to enjoy both the opera and Looney Tunes. It's also okay to like one and not the other, but neither side is allowed to dismiss the other simply because they think it is below (or above) them. There's enough audience to go around.

Spike Lee seems to want Perry to make meaningful films, whatever those might be. Perry put his money behind the Oscar-winning Precious, and in 2010 adapted and directed from a play the debate-stirring For Colored Girls. Both of these films arguably say more to black women -- a vastly underserved movie audience -- than any of Lee's movies. What exactly does Lee want from Perry?

To cannibalize a more eloquently asserted, parallel idea from Tina Fey: Lee might think Perry's success comes at the expense of other black filmmakers. If he does think along those lines, that misconception is a bigger problem than the quality of Perry's movies.

Kris Kendall has never seen a Michael Bay movie either but he's pretty sure Transformers is terrible. His writing has appeared on various public restroom walls and in letters to his mom.