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 Root.com. 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.