Perry uses the genre to deliver easily digestible hope. In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the message was: "Don't let your man take your self-respect (or your house)." In Daddy's Little Girls, it was: "Ladies, good men are out there. Even if they work under the hood of a car and have a bonkers baby mama, if he loves you, take him!" Black women, it turns out, are thrilled to see themselves in movies both as they live and as they aspire to live. The women who write in to tell me that I don't adore Perry's movies enough usually mention that his films give them hope for true love and greater success. I've never gotten that letter from a Martin Scorsese fan.
In Why Did I Get Married?, Jill Scott's overweight, insecure character, Sheila, finally works up the courage not just to leave her nasty husband but to tell off the friend he cheated on her with. By the end of the picture, she also lets herself succumb to the advances of a new, inarguably decent man. As would be the case in any self-respecting women's picture, Perry stages Sheila's revenge at a fancy gala where, of course, she looks fantastic.
Profiles of Tyler Perry tend to overlook his appeal to black women and focus instead on the role material items play in his movies. This isn't entirely unwarranted. Perry himself is fond of boasting about all the things his lucre has bought him. (He recently told the New York Times he wanted to have his own island; I don't think he was kidding.) Several dozen PETA activists would be required to throw paint on all the furs worn in Why Did I Get Married?, his most flagrantly fabulous film yet. The movie forgoes his usual city/country, buppie/ghetto clashes and instead draws a warm bath of soap-opera-worthy bougie melodrama. If the Luther Vandross songbook could be distilled into a two-hour movie, it'd probably look something like this.
But while Perry's characters might live in a different tax bracket than most people, they're also dealing with many of the same tribulations the rest of us are. The Tasha Smith character in Why Did I Get Married?, an outspoken owner of an upscale beauty salon, may have a nice lifestyle (she can take a week off for a mountain retreat), but she's tired of carrying her underemployed husband. These movies are grappling with something fundamental about achievement. You can be successful, but no one gets away with being a snob. (This might be the true reason film critics are unwelcome.) In a Perry movie, no matter how recently you got your hair done, your roots are always showing.
I used to have my issues with Perry. I used to find him frustrating because he wasn't making art. Perry is not August Wilson, Charles Burnett, or Spike Lee, nor does he want to be. But he is well on his way to being America's most important black entertainer. Perhaps the best comparison isn't Lee, but Oscar Micheaux, the entrepreneur and pioneering black director of the early 20th century. He wasn't a great filmmaker and his movies, which focused mostly on race, were always tinged with amateurism that critics described as shoddy or unsophisticated. But the public often responded, because, like Perry, he was a star who made movies for the black audiences whom Hollywood was either ignoring or mistreating. He didn't talk over their heads; he spoke directly to them. Micheaux was barred from making movies in Hollywood. Perry also makes his movies more or less independently, but so he can make the movies he wants to make. He could probably have the conventional Hollywood success his forebears like Micheaux couldn't, but, fascinatingly, he doesn't want it. He's doing fine on his own.
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