Released today by Lionsgate, Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too? seems like nothing so much as a cheap chaser for his Precious producer’s credit. One likes to follow a “stiff-drink” with a saccharine syrup, and that seems to be exactly what Perry has done.
With his penchant for performing in drag, Perry makes himself an easy target for casual criticism, of course. But when taken in a broad enough context, Perry’s signature role seems no more exotic or deviant than the Lord Chamberlain’s Men strutting the Globe’s boards with fake cleavage, musing love iambs to one another, and hiding their bulges in dress billows. The tyranny-filled Elizabethan/Jacobean stage even seems wholesome, if patriarchal, as it developed from moral objections about the fairer sex exhibiting itself, strumpet-like, in front of paying customers. Precedented and daresay high-minded, Perry’s Madea role ultimately reads like an homage to the traditions of theatrical transvestism, albeit expressed from the perspective of a socio-ethnic context Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson, and Liz/Jimmy the First almost certainly never imagined.
Perry’s most recent gift to the world is light Miss Mabel Simmons, but it contains almost every other stock Perry device. And while we can always indulge the transvestism, and nod at the (un)intentional homage, the Precious follow-up seems especially transparently commerical. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. A brother has to move units to pay bills and keep himself in Armani, and God knows 200,000 square feet of production space on 30 acres doesn’t pay for itself, even in southwest “Hotlanta.” But the post-Precious Perry has finally tipped his cards and revealed a guilty conscience to the world.
Earlier this year in an NPR interview, Perry more or less owned up to his role in modern “Blaxploitation” or what Spike Lee piquantly refers to as “coonery and buffoonery.”
In other words, far from being a colored Candide innocently stumbling his way into riches, Perry knows exactly what he’s doing with films like Why Did I Get Married Too? This complicates the Tyler Perry equation significantly since now we now know he knows what he’s doing, and he must now know that we know he now knows, you know? Moreover, we now know that he can turn out movies like Precious, but, one wonders, does he know this?
Admittedly, producing Precious seems to have rubbed off on Perry. He’s developed an art-house division called “34th Street Films” whose first production will be an adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (which will be released in January 2011 by Lionsgate). But following is Perry’s uncharacteristically humble response to the shock “black intellectuals” — who hope “he doesn’t play one of the roles” — expressed at “[t]he notion of ‘Madea'” directing Colored Girls:
Perry doesn’t blame them.
“I’m shocked, too,” he says. “I think they have every right to be shocked, and I’ve even seen outrage: ‘How dare you touch this.’ … Rest assured there will be no Madea, and they can also rest assured I’m going to stay very true to what Ntozake’s done.”
Could it be one of the seemingly most self-confident men in American entertainment has a bit of an inferiority complex? Has he been compromised by the same saccharine syrup he peddles and more or less subjugated — in the ways Spike Lee fears — by his stereotypical portrayals of modern African-American life? And, to add one more rhetorical question to the pile, does the success of Precious neither lend this man self-confidence nor liberate him from his own coon-and-buffoon iconography?
It might be, in fact, all the “Tyler Perry Presents Tyler Perry’s Directing/Starring/Production/Writing” possessory credit logorrhea is just a defense tactic, a cover for gross insecurity, a tactic to overwhelm with words, and leverage a brand, when content cannot otherwise convince.
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Tyler, baby! Precious was a real cinematic achievement. And kudos for tackling Shange. But at some point, these modern minstrel shows have to end, and even Madea must die lest your flood of Coke overwhelm the single malt that precedes it.