When I first saw a Tyler Perry play, I was intrigued. It was the right tone of easy laughs, simple plots, uplifting tunes, and fairy-tale endings for a high school student with a simple part time job at the local library, track and field practice, and no bills to pay. The black man in a dress was nostalgic for a girl obsessed with 90’s black television as all black casts of comedy shows have disappeared from television. I remember Wanda, Sheneneh, Big Momma, and Mrs. Klump while my mother remembers Geraldine. Although these black men in dresses did not portray black females appropriately, for a moment (a 30 minute sitcom to be precise) it was okay to just watch a television show after long days and not have to worry about the pressures of the representation of black females that you have been carrying around all day when you hear a quote of a rap song, or some boy whistles at you across the street instead of simply just saying hello. That brief moment was where Madea lived for a while. Whether or not Madea is a stereotype or whether or not you know someone just like her, it was a brief moment that I put up with because this is a black man writing his own stories for black audiences. I mean its hard out there for black consumers of anything these days as we are consistently thrown images that have only been branded black. For example ad campaigns such as McDonald’s 365 Black or P&G’s My Black is Beautiful Campaign dictate to us what black people like to wear, eat, see, talk about, etc. Then BET gets bought by Viacom and the walls come crumbling down. It’s official the people writing black stories and portraying black images might not be black. We are told to feel comfortable with it because after all it is Halle Berry as the face of the Revlon ad and you can be dark and lovely (as long as you purchase all the commercial products to do so). So why should we not accept this black man writing and producing and directing and starring in his own shows when we accept everything else.
But then it hits you. The remake … the all black remake. In 2012, Steel Magnolias (2012) released as a Lifetime Movie completely remade now starring all black actors of Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott, Adepero Oduye, and Condola Rashad. Then we think progress has been made. But take a closer look and you realize that it is the same story and same script that originally released in 1989 starring an all white cast which included Julia Roberts. That is when we realize that this is not really our story but a story. But then it opens up your mind to other things, is Madea really our story either? Is Mr. Brown’s flamboyant clothing and illiteracy our story? Is Uncle Joe smoking weed our story? Is there such a thing as our story? What is “our” story?
What I feel characterizes the black story is complexities that can not be summarized by one character, one joke, one ending, or even one movie. It’s large mass covers one of the biggest struggles in human history but some of the largest victories in human history, some of which have yet to be written. It covers so many varying opinions, personalities, characters, and faces that its disposition seems impossible to define. So when I watch a media representation, whether positive or negative (which in and of its self is a matter of opinion), I acknowledge that its differences from my story no matter how big or small is part of what it means to be part of the black story.
However, where my problem lies is that for me, the Tyler Perry’s media world is not big enough. His story lines go like this: boy or girl faces devastating blow (usually with drugs or abuse). Meets someone in the church. Madea curses someone out. Boy or girl finds God. Falls in love. They go to church to hear a gospel song and then live happily ever after. Now with the black story so full of complexities and changes and differences of opinions, to rap up our conflict with a bow and a church song diminishes all of those complexities. I mean, even when you are saved, that does not mean that you will not face hard times anymore. Black characters can take on more than Tyler Perry gives us credit for and so can his audiences. So give us some deeper story lines, real intellectual dilemmas in depth, complex stories that truly reveals more of what we are capable of. Or gives us stories that just about days of falling in love, getting in a new job, learning something different, or just a hobby (not every day in the life of a black person has to be a big societal problem either). Complexities are about having different levels, different problems, and different days. The rest of Hollywood writes off the black story not just in stereotypes, but in dumbed down plots and characters because they think that we can not handle it. Even when characters are telling jokes or having fun, they can still have a thick background and be rich and in depth. The more Tyler Perry productions cross over into mass audience marketability the less I see those complexities. For example, in his last release Madea’s Witness Protection (2012), Wall Street investment banker, played by Eugene Levy has been set up to take the fall in his financial company’s Ponzi scheme for the mob, he relocates his entire family, played by Denise Richards (as his wife), Doris Roberts (as his mother), Devan Leos (as his son), and Danielle Campbell (as his daughter) to Aunt Madea’s southern home. In the middle of that he adds this small plot line about a black kid named Jake (played by Romeo Miller) who has lost the money to save his father’s church and now has the pressures of his congregation and father on his mind. However, the former plot line is simply swept under the rug as the Wall Street family’s problems take center stage and all Madea has to do is take a trip to New York to solve both dilemnas. Thus Jake working to make his father proud and his family’s expectations are no big deal in the grand scheme of things. The real story becomes about Madea throwing some laughs our way when walking through metal detectors at the airport. Then the church song… They all live happily every after. Is there anything else?