- Bruised and Misunderstood:Translating Black Feminist Acts in the Work of Tyler Perry
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.—Audre Lorde1
Tyler Perry may be one of the most popular and successful African American playwrights and filmmakers of all time. He surfaced in the late 1990s from the underground theater and music movement that Henry Louis Gates Jr. and others have called the Chitlin Circuit.2 To date, his repertoire of converted plays to films have grossed more than five hundred million dollars. Despite his undeniable popularity with mainstream African American audiences, Perry has become a social and political scapegoat within academic circles for all that is supposedly wrong with black theater, film, and television. Following Audre Lorde's call in the opening epigraph, Perry has spoken what has been important to him—the stories of black women. Even with Perry's dedication and attention to many issues that black women face, his plays, films, and television shows have been largely "bruised and misunderstood" by many black elites. Indeed, a cadre of feminists, black popular critics, and/ or antifeminists, find fault with Perry's works. To be sure, I am not using a broad brush to describe all critic's and/ or feminist's opinions of Perry's work. My intention here is to engage the arguments that animate the extant criticism against the director. As such, this essay engages more ideologically driven accusations that revolve around [End Page 217] his use of race and gender stereotypes, his centering of the heteronormative black church, and the cinematic quality, or lack thereof for some, of his films. I argue that those debates involving his gender stereotypes and black women are particularly problematic because they fail to account for the critical perspectives of his mostly black female and working-class audience and the salient feminist impulses within his work. My chief aims, then, are to situate Perry as an organic black male feminist director and to create a forum that allows us to explore the attraction/repulsion toward Perry within and beyond the black intelligentsia.
In this essay, I create a conversation that allows Perry's work to "talk back," in the words of feminist bell hooks, to critics, feminists, and fans. This dialogue is presented in the four-act structure of his many plays in an attempt to performatively mirror the call and response between artists, audiences, and critics. Patricia Hill Collins tells us that dialogue is more effective in creating new knowledge than adversarial debate because the author can be present in the text, not necessarily lost to analysis. Perry's presence in this essay is effective in constructing new knowledge that can help us subvert the overlapping oppressions of race and gender mapped on the bodies of black women. I contend Perry's television shows, plays, and films are situated in the interstitial spaces of feminism. I interrogate how elite black critics' and/or feminists' focus on the seemingly negative imagery in Perry's works obscures the feminist impulses that inform his oeuvre. How does Perry's working-class fan base, predominantly comprised of African American women, suggest a need for black directors to attend to the social, class, religious, and gender barriers that incite many African American women to resist feminist labels?
Perry's recognizable scenarios of black life, characters, and doable acts of feminism operate in fictional spaces of theater, film, and television. The director attempts to connect working-class and elite experiences of black women together instead of forcing them apart. These contradictions are the same ones that third-wave feminist Rebecca Walker contends we must face and embrace in order to identify new and important voices that can help us continue to shape a political force more concerned with mandating and cultivating freedom than with policing morality. Perry may very well be such a voice.
Perry's contradictory use of recognizable stereotypes, familiar scenarios of black life, black melodrama, and a heteronormative black church center, creates opportunities to identify stereotypes that circulate in...