Tyler Perry's Secret to Success
He makes movies for audiences everyone else ignores.
Two weeks ago in Boston, a line formed outside a movie theater. The men and women in the line were waiting patiently. Many of them were well-dressed—a little bit churchy, a little bit board meeting. They were all black. (In Chicago, you don't notice. In Boston, you do.) I had come to the theater to see a press screening of the new Farrelly brothers movie, The Heartbreak Kid, but I knew that's not what this crowd was waiting to see. They were waiting for a sneak preview of Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?, the director's new romantic dramedy featuring, among a lot of other people, Janet Jackson. That night, I would have happily traded places with someone in that line.
Perry is a playwright, movie director, author, and occasional cross-dresser. He is also a bona fide star. But if a film critic is going to follow him, he has to do it as a fan. Lions Gate, the studio that releases his films, hasn't screened any of his last three movies for the press, since critics trounced his Diary of Mad Black Woman three years ago. Lionsgate is happy to promote his films among black moviegoers, but they don't invite critics, and they don't really have to. Why Did I Get Married? was the No. 1 movie in America last week. Plus, Lionsgate doesn't screen a lot of the movies it distributes, in particular the horror films it churns out. But any studio shameless enough to treat reviewers to Good Luck Chuck, a horror film masquerading as a comedy, should have no problem showing them an easy crowd-pleaser like Why Did I Get Married?
Then again, I don't mind paying to see a Tyler Perry movie with a Tyler Perry audience. Hell, that's half the fun: hearing a partisan crowd crack up, break down, suck its teeth, scream at the abusers, tsk-tsk the nincompoops, and, inevitably, go awww. (As the New York Times noted—twice—last weekend, Perry's fans love talking back to his movies.) But keeping Perry away from the press reinforces the notion among critics that he doesn't matter. Most major critics have committed more thought to the Saw and Hostel movies than to his.
Maybe Lionsgate assumes (not incorrectly) that many critics—present company excluded—are middle-aged white men who wouldn't get his movies. Maybe it's a directive from the director himself. Regardless, it feels discriminatory, and more important, it's unfair to Perry. It's true that Diary of a Mad Black Woman is loud and painfully preachy—like a church being dropped on your head. But while Perry wrote and starred in that movie, he didn't direct it, as he has his three subsequent projects. And Madea's Family Reunion, Daddy's Little Girls, and especially Why Did I Get Married? veer away from character types and get closer to how real people actually interact.
In particular, how black women interact. My favorite thing about Perry's movies is the women in them, played by actors—Kimberly Elise, Gabrielle Union, Jenifer Lewis, Lynn Whitfield—whose talents are typically squandered by other directors. Why Did I Get Married? is a bonanza, even by Perry's standards, with five juicy parts for the women to do with as they please. Perry may not yet have mastered fluid dramatic structure or where to put the camera, but he knows how to get out of the way of good and determined women. In fact, although his movies draw men and women alike, what Perry is making are really women's pictures, the popular genre that reached its height in the 1940s, starred actors like Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, and melodramatically saw women through all kinds of modern crises, from deceitful daughters to the career vs. stay-at-home dilemma.
Wesley Morris is a staff writer at Grantland.
Photograph of Tyler Perry and Jill Scott by Scott Gries/Getty Images.