Monday, November 16, 2009

Part 1: Coonery and Bafoonery: Spike Lee vs. Tyler Perry

Never one to mince words, Spike dropped a bomb during an interview at the 14th Annual Black Enterprise Conference when he referred to Tyler Perry's tv series "Meet the Browns" and "House of Payne" as examples of "coonery" and "bafoonery." Though Lee made clear that black artists "should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors," he added that they should take care not to slip into demeaning portraits of black folks that reproduce longstanding white stereotypes about black moral and social dysfunctions. In an interview with "60 Minutes," Perry punched back, saying that his use of comical black characters was politically strategic. He says, "Madea, Brown and all of these characters are bait. Disarming, charming, make-you-laugh bait so that I can slap Madea in something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family -- any of those things -- you know." Framing Spike Lee as an elitist gatekeeper of black respectability, Perry asserts that his work speaks to the black masses and their unique experiences--experiences that have been largely ignored in Hollywood until now.

Of the sparse commentary that exists on this public feud, I was particularly struck by Keith Josef Adkins' op-ed article at the Though he agreed with Lee's assessment of Perry's depictions of African Americans, he spent the bulk of his time critiquing Lee's penchant to cast light-skinned blacks and Latinos as his black leads' love interests. This is not to say that Adkins' observations about Lee miss the mark. The pattern that Adkins identifies is surely evident in Lee's work and should be held up to scrutiny, especially given the extent to which Lee has engaged colorist, caste, and class politics in his films. The conspicuous gap in the essay, of course, is a serious interrogation of Perry's work. And, here, I'm not simply talking about a critique of the coonery and bafoonery to which Lee refers. To borrow my mother's phraseology, a blind man could see the resemblances between Perry's depiction of black folks and the minstrelsy tradition that Lee's ascribes to his work. In other words, we needn't waste precious time debating this issue. As a cultural critic recently remarked, if Perry were white, the black receptivity would be radically different. Rather than celebrating his achievements, they would be boycotting his movies and lampooning him as a racist.

I'm nick-picking Adkin's article to highlight our collective reticence as a community to both hold what we deem "good black men" accountable for their actions and, more particularly in this case, to confront the pain that such demeaning, comical images mask. More to the point, my proverbial dog in this fight has to do with the extent to which Perry's meteoric rise pivots on exploiting--consciously and unconsciously--the unhealthy ways that blacks cope with suffering.

The late writer-activist Toni Cade Bambara once wrote that black folks have been socialized "to ignore or laugh at the [spiritual] damage" that we have suffered historically under white supremacy in the U.S. On some level, this dynamic explains why blacks reacted so intensely to Hurricane Katrina compared to whites. Conditioned as we've become to dodge our hurt, many of us were emotionally ambushed by the magnitude of black suffering that was paraded before us on a daily basis. When Kanye West broke with the prepared script during the Hurricane Katrina Fundraiser and declared to the world that George Bush didn't like black people, many of us cheered him on--not because what he said was profound or even well-articulated, but because he vomited up his hurt, confusion, and anger over the events in a raw, uncensored way that we could relate to on a visceral level as oppressed people. Indeed, his speech became such a spectacle, in part, because it has become so rare in our hyper-bling era to see artists, athletes, and even preachers (think Rev. T.D. Jakes and Rev. Creflo Dollar-Bill-Ya'll) risk tarnishing their marketability potential--i.e, pissing off a segment of their fan base--to address such hot-button racial issues in the public domain.

Spike Lee was addressing this phenomenon, albeit indirectly, when he pointed out that when artists like John Singleton make movies like "Rosewood"--which dramatized a horrific racial massacre in 1923 of a small black community in Florida--black people didn't show up to support it. (I happened to see "Rosewood," by the way, and it was a good movie, if not one of Singleton's best.) Though I have no way of confirming this, my suspicion is that African Americans tend not to patronize these movies--not because they are poorly made--but because they throw back at us issues of suffering and pain for which we have no adequate language and for which we dare not allow ourselves to feel. Though Kanye West managed to emerge from his political ordeal with his career still firmly intact (which was due in no small part by his counseled decision to keep his mouth shut about the issue afterward), the media attacks that followed--most notably from the political Right--offered a stark reminder to West and the rest of us that confronting the (white) sources of black pain comes at a high emotional, social, and economic cost.

So, when Perry talks of making movies that cater to the needs/tastes of "the people,"--that is, black folks furthest down the class hierarchy--he is speaking truthfully. The problem, of course, is that he is not necessarily contributing to a healing and empowering discourse as much as he is capitalizing on our unhealthy coping mechanisms with lingering white oppression. Consider the fact that his last installment of the Madea series--"I Can Do Bad All By My Self" topped all movies in September, grossing $24 million in the first weekend. Clearly, if not predictably, black folks were not the only ones interested in the "dysfunctional" images of blackness that Perry was peddling. To be honest, I have difficulty watching Perry's movies to this day--not because they are poorly made, though some surely are--but because I recognize the emotional cover-up masked in jocularity. This cover-up for me is the real "House of Pain" for black folks.


  1. I think you're right on the money in your statement that blacks tend not to show up to certain types of films which showcase the history of our pain and suffering. I remember in college asking a classmate if he'd seen Beloved. He said no. I asked how many times he's seen How To Be a Player. He said twice.

  2. Exactly!! Thing is we can't afford to do this. Perpetuating such pathologies not on wreaks havoc on our psyches but it dooms the next generation to a similar fate.

  3. I like that this post is Part I because there is quite a bit to break down as far as Perry's movies are concerned. I'm not a fan of his movies, but one of the reasons that I like to watch is to hold social commentary and critique on the ways in which he holds deeply underlying misogynistic messages in ALL of his films.

  4. First off, you all need to take a quick chill pill. I am a member of this "next generation" that is said to be mislead by the images potrayed in the black media. I hate to bust you all's bubble, but the bottom line is that what Tyler Perry creates is real. His movies, his shows, his plays all take situations and personalities that are apparent in the black community. Yes, they maybe be funny and sometimes called a joke, but it is real. Do I think that black people are only good for jokes, NO!!! I have seen the rather intellectual movies, and I have also seen movies like Perry's. We as black people should be educated enough in our own history, heritage, and culture to understand the funny, yet true aspects of African-Americans. Own up to it, and stop critizing the one who expresses what he sees.

  5. jovan, playa. Racism is real but that doesn't make it right. Holding our community accountable for what they produce is necessary and healthy. Nobody is denying that Perry has talent. His message of empowerment is simply a problem. Unless, of course, you're wedded to traditional notions of manhood.

  6. All I know is, the fact that white people are able to casually consume Tyler Perry movies and enjoy what they see is a huge red flag. It's been said that a space that is safe for white people is necessarily not a safe space for PoC and vice-versa. Well, televisual media constitute a space. And whatever messages Tyler Perry thinks he's putting out, he needs to take a look at what's actually being received. And not just by black people. [I guess we can call this the Chappelle Check.] For the record, I'm not giving Spike Lee a free ride either, but his films are harder to watch in a casual, shallow, uncritical way.

    I'd never even heard of "Rosewood," so I assume it didn't really attract white audiences either: too difficult. I don't generally like movies, and I rarely make a point to seek them out (they come to me), but I'm interested. I'ma check it out. Thanks for the rec!