“It’s tough, but he’s giving us work… He’s giving Black actresses work.” — K.J.*, voice actress
This is a conversation I have had with friends almost every time another Tyler Perry movie comes out. In their eyes, I left theater due to my enchantment with theory, higher education, and academia. This is true: I go to work, meet with my students, address student concerns, and head home around 5-ish every day. All of this while they are out auditioning, contacting casting agencies, and and taking classes to continue honing their craft.
They often remind me of an implicit message that keeps showing up in their lifestyle: “You’re only as good as your next gig.” For them, Tyler Perry offers that “next gig.” I can understand that, on a personal level. Prior to coming into higher education student affairs, I looked for work in the theatre. Trust me, life is a lot better when you know that your “next gig” is secure. However, there is always a price to be paid. The work of Tyler Perry implicitly asks actresses (specifically) to bend a bit, conform into semblances of mashed-up stereotypes... with a moral / motivational message that “justifies” the use of theatrical tropes. And that’s just in the supporting cast. The work of Tyler Perry, as embodied by the character “Madea”, implicitly suggests that Black men can tell our stories for us, guide us when we get “lost”, and consistently save the day. The character of Madea both entertains and wounds.
My question is: Why do we keep going to see the films, knowing how problematic they are?
Last week, Lionsgate Films released a trailer for Tyler Perry’s first animated film, “Madea’s Tough Love.” The movie is set to be released via DVD on January 20, 2015.
Why is Madea having her latest adventure, in the midst of the revolutionary media content currently being created by and featuring Black women—including Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Being Mary Jane, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and more? Why do we need another man to tell Black women’s stories, when there are Black women currently doing such a good job at it?
Perhaps it is because of the employment opportunities Madea films open up for Black actors and actresses. Perhaps those who find Madea problematic are few. Why else would I continuously find myself schlepping across town with a group of girlfriends to see her latest film, gritting my teeth, and quietly protesting about getting my money back? Perhaps we watch these films because when it comes to cinematography featuring Black characters, “we are underfed,” as the movie “Dear White People” suggested in a particularly poignant scene. Perhaps Madea exists simply to make money for Lionsgate.
Regardless of the reasons why Madea exists, I often wonder: Will we ever get tired of her?