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Reevaluating Tyler Perry and the Role of Racism In His Lack of Coverage

By Dustin Rowles | Film | September 14, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | September 14, 2009 |

We’ve been hard on Tyler Perry here since his debut film back in 2005. Perhaps, deservedly so. In his four years on the scene, he’s made up one third of the unholy triumvirate here on Pajiba, part of our axis of evil that includes Katherine Heigl and Paul Haggis. In a way, he commits the same sins that Haggis did in Crash: He abuses racial stereotypes, employs heavy-handed moralizing, and sermonizes his audience into bloody red pulps of after-school specialness.

The difference is this: Paul Haggis won an Oscar, while Tyler Perry — despite his box-office success — is largely ignored by mainstream critics, particularly those online, whose demographics often don’t support the cost of a review. Granted, Tyler Perry’s movies are rarely screened for critics, but neither was Whiteout. And if you check the Tomatometer today, there are over 80 reviews of Whiteout (a movie that opened with less than $6 million) and only 21 of the number one movie at the box office this weekend: I Can Do Bad All By Myself. In my mind, whether you like his movies or not, that’s just fucking disrespectful. Tyler Perry is, commercially, the biggest African-American director of all time, and the least the man deserves at this point is acknowledgement, even if it is a scathing review. Tyler Perry’s movies made more in one weekend than Kevin Smith’s do during their entire run, and who gets all the press? Tyler Perry has legitimate more box-office successes than Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson combined. And yet only 21 critics deigned to share a theater with a mostly black audience this weekend to write about a movie we all knew was going to be number one over the weekend. His movies always are, even if we can attribute it to picking slower movie weekends.

Is it racist to call out Tyler Perry for making lowbrow, preachy movies? No. Is it racist to ignore a director who appeals to a considerable segment of America’s African-American population? Yeah. Maybe. Why else refuse to review his movies? Is it because, at this point, we’ve seen enough Tyler Perry movies to know they’re going to be bad? That doesn’t stop us from reviewing Adam Sandler movies. Or is it because we know they’re critic-proof? That’s never stopped us from reviewing half of the summer slate. Besides, most movie sites are not above posting the less time-intensive Tyler Perry trailers and news, and taking their pot shots. Tyler Perry slights should be earned, in my estimation. You ought to at least see his movies before taking your digs at him (which is not to say that many of the insults aren’t warranted, at least the ones that aren’t blatantly racist).

Four years ago, Jeremy wrote a brutal review of Diary of a Mad Black Woman. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve seen enough Tyler Perry movies since to know it was an honest and warranted review. But the truth is: We’ve been piling on ever since. I’ve been careful to spread the Tyler Perry movies around here at Pajiba, to ensure we get a fresh perspective each time out, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve been rolling out variations of the same complaints. But then again, Tyler Perry has been rolling out a variation of the same movie since 2005. I’m surprised, in fact, that Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer haven’t taken advantage: Tyler Perry’s Preachy Movie.

I Can Do Bad All By Myself, however, demands some reevaluation of Tyler Perry. We can’t coast by with the same review because Tyler Perry hasn’t made the exact same movie again. It’d be a stretch to call it anything close to a good movie, but I Can Do Bad, at the very least, represents an improvement. Some maturation. And while the themes may be similar, they are less heavy-handed and, more importantly, Perry has assembled a cast that insists we take notice.

Oscar-nominated Taraji P. Henson stars as April, a self-obsessed club singer involved in an abusive relationship with Randy (Brian White), a married man who nevertheless calls the shots in her house because he helps to pay the bills. April sings six nights a week, drinks herself into a stupor, wakes up late, and starts the day all over again. That is, until her mother disappears and the children of April’s sister are abandoned into her care, forced on her by Madea (Tyler Perry) after they break into her house and try to steal a VCR.

Meanwhile, the local church has also pushed a handyman immigrant, Sandino (Adam Rodriguez) into her home. He agrees to fix up her place for a bed in her basement, to the displeasure of Randy. Sandino ends up looking after the children and, ultimately, falling for April, who has to make her own journey toward self-discovery before she can allow Sandino and the children into her life.

It’s predictable stuff, and it unfolds just as you’d expect it to, particularly if you’re familiar Tyler Perry’s movies. However, I Can Do Bad All By Myself boasts strong performances by Taraji P. Henson and the eldest daughter, Hope Olaide Wilson, a hard-ass kid who’ll stop at nothing to protect her younger brothers. They manage, together, to elevate Perry’s earnest, cliche-ridden material to something approximating mediocrity. Moreover, the sledgehammer preachiness has taken a backseat to a more conventional narrative. Granted, it’s one punctuated by the occasional musical number, gospel or otherwise, but it’s the voices of Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige and, especially, Marvin Winan’s pastor that helps up-sell the TP experience. There are some motherfucking crowd-pleasing numbers in this movie, and I’m not ashamed to admit that they were a little stirring.

Unfortunately, I Can Do Bad All By Myself is still bogged down by the usual. Namely, Tyler Perry’s Madea — who provides the comic relief — screws with the otherwise more consistent dramatic tone. Granted, of the three cross-dressing overweight black women — Norbit’s Rasputia, Big Momma, and Madea — I actually prefer the latter, but that’s not saying a lot. Moreover, of course, April also has to be saved by a man in the end, even if he is a good man saving her from a bad one. But then again: That’s part and parcel for 90 percent of romantic comedies. There’s no reason to ridicule Tyler Perry any more than Kate Hudson or Robert Luketic for falling into the same formulaic trap.

In the end, I Can Do Bad All By Myself is not a particularly good movie, although it does have its moments, moments of joyous levity. But the important thing is that I Can Do Bad All By Myself at least deserves to be told it’s mediocre. And until review outlets start ignoring every other bland romantic comedy that comes out of the Hollywood poop chute, they have a responsibility to lump Tyler Perry’s oeuvre into them, instead of outright ignoring him.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.

Pajiba Love 09/14/09 | Sorority Row Review

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.