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March 18, 2009

Perpetuating Black Stereotypes?

Tyler Perry's films are hugely popular, but are they dumbing down African Americans?

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The latest issue of Entertainment Weekly includes a thought-provoking article about the films of African-American writer/director/actor Tyler Perry, one of the hottest names at the box office in recent years. His current film, Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail, opened at No. 1 and has earned more than $83 million. His seven films overall have grossed over $360 million.

Popular, yes. But are they politically incorrect? Or even offensive?

"Tyler Perry's films are rooted in some of the worst stereotypes that have ever existed," Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts, told EW.

Donald Bogle, author of Toms, Coons, Mulatoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, tends to agree: "If a white director put out this product, the black audience would be appalled."

Perry's critics argue that his movies include "regressive, down-market stereotypes," as EW put it: "In many of his films there's a junkie prostitute, a malaprop-dropping uncle, and Madea, a tough-talking grandma the size of a linebacker ('Jemima the Hutt,' one character calls her)." Bogle says that Madea has "connections to the old mammy type. She's mammy-like."

Perry comes to his own defense, telling EW, "These stories have come out of my own pain and everything I've been through. These characters are simply tools to make people laugh. And I know for a fact that they have helped, inspired, and encouraged millions of people."

Indeed, Perry, a Christian, infuses his movies with stories of hope, forgiveness, and redemption -- partly mirroring his own personal journey out of a painful past, which he shared with CT Movies in this interview.

What do you think of Perry's films (if you've seen any)? Do they perpetuate stereotypes, or not? Are they uplifting and inspiring? Chime in on the discussion thread below.

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Comments

I haven't seen any of his movies, but I am still unhappy with the fact that - as I understand it - the NAACP had "Song of the South" (one of my favorite movies as a kid) put out of production because it was supposed to be racist.

If all races are mature enough to be able to poke fun at their stereotypes and even laugh at themselves, I think that is commendable, healthy and helpful for all concerned.

Anyway you cut it, we're all just a small part of a very funny human race in the end.

When introducing the Greek tragedy "Medea" to my 12th Honors class, one of the students piped up, "Oh, that's 'Diary of a Mad Blackwoman'! Can we watch that in class?" I had no idea what a treat was in store for me when I rented the film to make sure it was "ok" first. This classic from the Tyler Perry canon was not only hilarious, but deeply moving, and spiritually uplifting.
Perry has that rare gift, like the best preachers, for enclosing an important message within an engaging, memorable package. You never know what has hit you - one moment you're laughing so hard you can't breathe, and the next, you're choking back tears and nodding your head at the beauty of what is transpiring.
Such outcomes happen in film after film of Perry's. His Madea character is outrageous, yes, but also caring and sensitive to those who need it (just like any of our most wacky relatives, no matter the ethnicity). He carefully includes many "normal," highly educated characters as well, and it is around them that the key plot revolves. The "wacky" characters are not stereotypes, but unique in their very special way - comic relief inserted to relieve the tension of the more sobering message to come. The end result is that I have come from his movies feeling uplifted, delighted, and challenged to reach out to others and to keep drawing closer to the Lord.
Tyler Perry, keep up the GREAT work!

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