There is no comparison between Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, I think even Tyler Perry realizes this. Yet once again African American moviegoers are put in the middle of a debate between two popular movie producers. While Perry produces box office juggernauts that bring African Americans to theaters in droves, Lee creates masterpieces that will be discussed among African Americans for generations. I will agree that Perry and Lee are clearly in different realms. One likes to attack real issues, or bring great African American leaders to life on screen while the other intends to entertain us for a few hours. In these separate realms it is hard to compare the works of Spike Lee and Tyler Perry, there truly is no comparison but are we so wrong to ask for Tyler Perry to step his game up and create a better product in his field of African American film making? I do not think so. I considered myself a fan of Tyler Perry for many years. I was excited when he brought his style of comedy from the stage to the big screen. I also applauded his success in the face of negative reviews but one day I sat in the theater and like a broken spell I wanted more from Tyler Perry.
This weekend Tyler Perry is releasing Madea’s Big Family Reunion and from the previews I cannot see how this is any different from one of the first movies he released, Madea’s Family Reunion. Perry seems to be a producing a quick assembly line style of movie making that is hurting for creativity. One of the last movies I paid for was “I Can Do Bad All By Myself”. In one scene the star Taraiji Henson passionately sings along to the music from the church near her home. I swore to myself that if she walked into the church singing I was going to walk out of the theater. Perry did not take it that far but I am sure most of his audience also recognized the striking similarities between that scene and the scene at the end of The Color Purple with Shug Avery marching from the juke joint to the church singing “God is Trying to Tell You Something”. Other movies included elements reminiscent of Soul Food and of course Madea is always referencing a Sophia line from The Color Purple. I realize this happens a lot in Hollywood but I find it very weak and lazy to “borrow” from movies that most of your audience has seen. A little time and effort could produce a more creative and unique story that the African American audience has never been exposed too.
Tyler Perry’s story telling abilities also contribute to the weak final product. In 3rd grade I remember my teacher providing us with a dramatic structure chart. After reading a book in class we would fill out this chart so that we could have a better understanding of the elements of storytelling. It is a very simple chart, illustrated below, but it is a structure that Tyler Perry movies are often lacking. I find that as the action rises, it explodes and then ends, where is the falling action where we fix the problem? A good example is the Why Did I Get Married sequel. The first movie wrapped everything up in such a nice neat way that it was so odd to be confronted with so much drama in the first scene! Within in minutes into the sequel she’s cheating, they are still cheating, he is jobless, they are divorcing, cancer, and then BOOM a tragic car accident! Fast-forward to a beach memorial scene and the movie is over. There was no falling action to adequately address all the drama that was thrown at the viewer left and right. His movies are also full of way too many characters that are never fully developed. Rather than watching a movie about a husband, wife and their kids, we confront the issues of their grandmother, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers and a random person the character will share a cell with at the end of the movie. No I did not make that last one up! In Madea Goes to Jail the only connection between the two main characters was sharing a cell towards the end of the movie. These factors generally create a soap opera type movie with high drama and few realistic conclusions.
I also take issue with African Americans who call Tyler Perry’s depictions of our community true and realistic. If that is the type of drama that your family addresses on the regular remind me to decline your invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. Tyler Perry’s movies are hyperbole, an exaggerated representation of the African American culture. Madea is humorous and in some of her soapbox moments I hear my grandmother but Madea is the extreme! It is very possible that my grandmother would lambast one of my male cousins for sagging pants or not having a job but she would not threaten to pull a gun out of her purse or beat them with her purse. I understand that extra piece is what makes Madea funny but that extra piece is also what makes it unrealistic and therefore opens the door for the Tyler Perry’s movies to be labeled the Amos and Andy of today.
In the six years since Tyler Perry moved to the big screen, he has created about ten movies and of those movies I personally only consider one a potential classic that I will watch ten years from now. Spike Lee on the other hand created classics like Malcolm X, Crooklyn, and School Daze early in his career in the same time frame. Box Office pull may be the mark of a great director, writer or producer in the present but for me if a movie can withstand the test of time and be celebrated by generations then it truly is a good product. Movies like Cooley High, Sparkle and Claudine were released before my time but I have seen all of them because their impact withstood the test of time. When considering great African American movies made in my lifetime, I would add Soul Food, Waiting to Exhale or even Boyz in the Hood to the list but I would only consider Why Did I Get Married out of Tyler Perry’s catalogue. If majority of Tyler Perry’s movies cannot meet this standard in the present then why are we not questioning the product that he is producing?
Do not get me wrong I want Tyler Perry to be successful but I think with the amount of success he has already achieved he should aspire to mature as a director and writer and provide a better movie that generations can enjoy. I also do not think it is fair to slap Spike Lee with the overused label of hater simply because he expressed his criticism of Tyler Perry’s work. Yes Tyler Perry is making a lot more money off his movies then Spike Lee ever did but has anyone ever considered that Spike Lee could pander to the African American community to make money if he wanted to? I think Spike Lee holds artistic integrity higher than the mighty dollar. The reality is that its been awhile since Spike Lee made a movie yet a new Tyler Perry movie makes its way to local your local theater at least twice a year. I just hope despite his box office success, that Tyler Perry takes the time to become a better storyteller and a better filmmaker because it seems that he is here to stay.