Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tyler Perry Follows His Personal Vision

"Me and critics, you can forget about it. I don't read the reviews, but if someone tells me there's a good one I'm shocked because, especially if it's not a black person, I always expect them not to get it. Always."--Tyler Perry, September 2010 issue of Empire

If someone presented Tyler Perry's life story to a Hollywood studio as a script with the names changed, it would be rejected as ludicrously implausible. Perry, the son of an alcoholic carpenter from New Orleans, was sexually abused by two different neighbors and he twice attempted suicide in his early teens. When he was 22, an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show about the therapeutic value of writing inspired him to draft a play titled I Know I've Been Changed. Perry spent his life savings at the time--$12,000--to stage the play. "It ran for four days," Perry told Empire's Dorian Lynskey. "I expected 1200 and 30 came." Perry clarified that the attendance was not even 30 per showing: "Thirty, that's it. Over the whole thing."

Perry worked dozens of different jobs before he was able to support himself via his theater work. Finally, in 1998 he again staged I Know I've Been Changed but this time he used a converted church as the venue instead of a theater. The tremendous success that ensued proved that he had connected with an audience yearning to hear stories of hope and redemption. Perry believed in his vision even when times were rough: "Every time I wanted to give up I could see it in my mind--I could see it being successful. And I knew this was the God voice in my mind. I knew it was God because there's not one person I can look back on and say helped me get to this place. Not one."

Perry honed his skills by staging roughly 300 shows a year on the Chitlin' Circuit from 1998-2005. In 2005, he produced his first movie, Diary of a Mad Blackwoman. He has since produced more than a dozen movies that have grossed more than $500 million. The popularity of Perry's work results from the combination of humor and inspiration that Perry conveys to the audience. Lynskey comments, "Christianity is part of the moral furniture of his movies, but the message stems more from the church of Oprah: do the right thing, respect yourself and others, follow your dreams, etc."

Perry often dresses in drag in his movies and his brand of slapstick comedy is not universally appreciated. Spike Lee sniped that Perry's depictions of black characters are similar to the "coonery and buffoonery" displayed decades ago in old Hollywood movies. Perry said to Lynskey, "I'm speaking to the masses in a way they understand and not speaking down to them and not saying, 'You're a coon or a buffoon because you enjoy this.' That's insulting on so many levels."

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