When sometime last month Tyler Perry got his hands on the rights to that classic of African American theater, Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, an abrupt, audible, collective gasp could be heard throughout the African American community. At the time I intended to pen a few lines in response, but by the time I finished, the moment had passed.
However, on Sunday evening following Tyler Perry’s interview on 60 Minutes, I watched in bemusement and surprise as fierce and impassioned internecine rhetorical skirmishes broke out across the various social media as people chose sides for and against his particular version of entertainment.
But before I begin in earnest, allow me, please, to ask you a question. Why must black art always have a purpose? When did we get so uptight that we could no longer laugh at ourselves or with ourselves?
I’m no Tyler Perry fan. I don’t recall ever even seeing a Tyler Perry movie completely through. I look for certain elements like plot and character develop and a compelling narrative in movies, and these elements seem to be wholly absent from his work.
And recently on a slow Saturday afternoon, I watched episodes of his television shows, The House of Payne and Meet the Browns, and frankly I was not impressed. It just isn’t my brand of humor. However, would I call it coonery or buffoonery? I’m not sure I would go that far. It certainly toes the line, though.
However, what I readily recognize in the argument as to the relevancy and place of Perry’s work is a recapitulation of the whole low culture/high culture debate that has been playing itself out in the African American community for some time now.
It seems that a segment of the population has found its calling as the judge and jury of what constitutes credible and acceptable art, and anything that falls outside its narrow standards of what is and what is not acceptable is deemed coonery and buffoonery and summarily dismissed as unworthy.
But in examining these artistic artifacts, those self-appointed standard bearers do so with the same judgmental and jaundiced eye through which the wider cultural and societal community judges all African Americans as a whole. In other words, we simply recreate the terms of our own denigration for the purpose of enforcing some ever shifting standard of acceptability; shit usually roles downhill.
I am not quite certain why the work of those more skillful and able filmmakers and other artists, those considered serious thus acceptable artists, cannot exist in our community alongside the work of those artists that is considered less polished, less relevant, less acceptable.
If I have any wish, it would that those works falling in the former category either out number or equal the quantity of those works in the latter category so that some balance might be achieved in the positive and negative images of our community entering the mainstream society at large.
And as far as Tyler Perry bringing Ntozake Shange’s play to the big screen, before we begin to throw stones, let’s look at the whole situation with a critical eye. Allow me to deploy this analogy.
Remember the literary character of Uncle Tom? For years that character has been the symbol for acquiescence and capitulation to the whims of an oppressive and demeaning system. But when viewed critically it becomes plain that Uncle Tom used his position in the master’s house to ameliorate the suffering of his brethren in the fields.
And Booker T. Washington has long been reviled as someone who sold his people out by insisting that they cast down their lot where they stood and accept their lot in life as farmers and as craftsmen. And for this he was rewarded by the mainstream culture with an audience with the highest and most powerful government leaders and captains of industry who heaped money upon him to fund his various projects.
Now historical records show that Booker T. Washington used a greater part of the monetary support he received from rich and powerful patrons to provide opportunities for promising youth and secretly fund numerous and various back door efforts to achieve equality and civil rights.
In both cases, nothing appeared as it seemed. While both Uncle Tom and Booker T. Washington showed one public face that pleased their oppressors and earned the ire of black folk, in secret they used the privilege and influence gained to help in the uplift of their community. Could this also be what Tyler Perry hopes to achieve?
Now let me ask you this question. What African American in the entertainment or movie industry has the money or the clout to bring this play to the big screen? At this time, the only one other than Perry that comes to mind is Oprah, and Oprah is still gun shy after sinking so much money, emotion, and energy in bringing Beloved to the big screen only to have black folk stay at home. It is perhaps telling that rap mogul Master P’s I Got the Hook Up outperformed Oprah’s Beloved during the first weekends in which they were released.
So, Perry’s oeuvre of so-called coonery and buffoonery has put him in the unique position money wise and influence wise to bring a number of African American classic works such as Shange’s Colored Girls to the big screen. If it were not for him doing so, how much longer would we have to wait for someone to come along with the money and the clout and the will?
I would only hope that in doing so he would recognize his limitations as a film maker and bring in a team of professionals to do the heavy lifting.