... the other Black experience

Who Should Represent Black Cinema? Spike Lee? Tyler Perry? None Of The Above?

Every time a new Tyler Perry film is released, I find myself thinking back to a now infamous 2009 interview in which director Spike Lee, when asked about the state of black cinema, said: “A lot of stuff that’s on today is coonery and buffoonery, and I know it’s making a lot of money and breaking records, but we can do better.” This was, of course, a thinly veiled attack on Tyler Perry, who for the past decade has been churning out his own special brand of comedy-melodrama starring Madea, his 60-something-year-old alter-ego. Madea is a wise, foul-mouthed, weed smoking, Bible-thumping matriarch who some criticize for conjuring up negative stereotypes about black people. Even so, Madea has helped Perry break unprecedented records, especially for black filmmakers – last year he topped the Forbes list for the highest earning male in Hollywood. But in Perry’s new movie Good Deeds, there is no Madea for comic relief. It’s a sober exercise in oversentimentality; another foray into what I guess Perry considers to be serious filmmaking. The movie is, to put it bluntly, an effort, and little else.

Words by Zeba Blay

Good Deeds itself isn’t interesting, but at this stage in Perry’s career that’s neither here nor there. What is interesting is the shift in Perry’s on camera and behind-the camera personas, especially when you think about them in context of the feud that dominated any and all discussions about Perry, Spike Lee, and black films in general just a few short years ago. Good Deeds could be viewed, maybe, as a cinematic “go to hell” to Perry’s detractors – proof that he’s versatile, maybe even a little bit poignant, and not reliant on so-called “coonery and buffoonery” to entertain an audience.

But I’m uncomfortable with that idea. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the feud, because it wasn’t actually a feud, but a few choice and albeit stinging words slung over the breadth of months, always indirectly, always through the funnel of an interview. And while Lee’s comments were harsh, there was also some stark truth in them – just as, I think, there’s been truth in critics of Lee as well. What was uncomfortable about the so-called feud is how it devolved, so rapidly, into an angry arguement Hollywood was forcing these filmmakers and, ultimately, we the viewers to have.

The media had this strange fascination these two black men bickering, in the way the media holds a strange and perverse fascination with two beefing rappers – the more shit talked, the better. But does that same fascination extend to other directors? Can you think of an instance when the Martin Scorseses and Michael Bays of the industry were ever the subjects of this type of heated, all-consuming discussions about their craft or the state of cinema, or ever goaded into exchanging fighting words?

Don’t worry. I’ll wait.

The aftermath of the whole ugly business was this sort of unspoken ultimatum, a pointed finger demanding us moviegoers to choose who was right and who was wrong, who was actually talented and who was setting us back as a people. It was now more than a battle of aesthetics, of city folk and country folk, of high art and low art. It was now Tyler Perry or Spike Lee? Who, in fact, should represent black cinema?

Well, neither.

First of all I’m just going to say that I thik Lee is as inconsistent and pedantic as he is prolific, and Perry’s fault lies not in the supposed stereotypes of his characters but more in the fact that – let’s be really real – his movies are not “good.” But it’s frustrating that the question, the idea was even posed – even if not outright. It’s frustrating that black directors suffer under this heavy and ever-present burden of representation that, in a world where black filmmakers get so little opportunity to tell stories anyway, forces them to encompass everything that is the black experience when so often what they’re presenting, what any director presents, is only their experience.

Oh, and there is no black cinema – at least not Hollywood’s understanding of it. For the longest time, black filmmaking has existed in this weird bubble universe on the edge of Hollywood, and no matter how much money a black film makes, how much history is behind it, or what new heights it reaches artistically, the attention rarely has to do solely with  its artistic merit but on how it reflects black people and if it reflects black people the right way. That way, Hollywood won’t have to confront things like, say, its conspicuous dislike of Spike Lee who is too “militant” (which is really just another way of saying “You call us out on our racist bullshit and that makes us uncomfortable”), never mind his clear talent. And Tyler Perry, he will always be an oddity – of mild interest due to his astounding success but very little else.

But what’s more important is all the filmmakers who don’t even seem to really come up in the discussion, ever. Lee and Perry are part of a long and varied tradition of black filmmakers, including Oscar Michaeux (whose career began in 1919 and spanned decades), Gordon Parks, John Singleton, Melvin Van Peebles, Mario Van Peebles, Kasi Lemmons, Anthony Hemingway, Denzel Washington, Lee Daniels, Kenny Leon, Vaginal Davis, Doug E. Doug, Steve McQueen, and now newcomers like Terence Nance, Ava Duvernay and Dee Rees.   

So for me, the “feud” stands as a reminder not to allow Hollywood to try and rope me into accepting its idea that there can be only one black drector in Hollywood, to remember the triumphs and flaws in Lee, Perry, and all the black filmmakers their work is built upon.

No one should be the face of black cinema, as strange and intangible a concept as that is, because black cinema is a reflection of black culture which, as the readers of Afropunk know, is more complex and dynamic than the world gives us credit for. So, while we do need to be open about discussing the quality and the impact of the work we produce, we also need the freedom to have Do the Right Thing stand alongside Medicine for Melancholy, and have that stand alongside Pariah, and have that stand alongside yes, even Madea’s Big Happy Plot Contrivance. Together, collectively, they form a more comprehensive picture of something that’s so much bigger than Hollywood, so much bigger than cinema, and so much greater than the sum of its parts.

* Contributor Zeba Blay's movie blog: Film Memory + @zblay on Twitter

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Comment by Intellect in Isolation on March 17, 2012 at 11:53pm

I was actually talking to my professor about this last week. If I actually go to grad school, I'll be focusing most of my research on representation and media. My prof is in the philosophy dept and actually has nothing to do with my research plans (his wife does though), but we shot the breeze about movies during his office hours and this came up. I enjoyed Perry when he first came out with his stage plays. I thought they were cute and funny, nothing to get riled up over. Now he's like this big thing. I was telling my prof, who has never actually seen a Perry film, that Perry is a bit like the Booker T. Washington of our time (yes, this is a gross exaggeration, but hear me out!). His writing isn't the best and his portrayals of blacks are sometimes cringe worthy, I'm thinking specifically of the television shows, but he has done something necessary I think. He actually put blacks on television and in movies as the majority cast and focus (in American films) AND is being recognized for it. I want to hope that this "rivalry" isn't just another Washington/Du Bois, Hurston/Wright, King/Malcolm thing and that it leads to Hollywood seeing projects done by more black filmmakers, but only time can tell.

Comment by groovacious on March 11, 2012 at 12:03pm

I just wish there was more of a variety of black filmmakers.  I want to see movies that star black people that isn't just about race or "the black struggle." I want to see these filmmakers move past these stereotypical depictions of black people and just branch out.  Make movies about black people with everyday problems etc etc.

Comment by Compound Egret on March 8, 2012 at 6:04pm

Fructose makes an important point; Perry DID IT HIMSELF. People who don't like his movies can follow his blueprint and get on the grind.

Comment by malachi smith on March 7, 2012 at 8:01pm

Great read Zeba. It brings up an old thorn in my side from film school days - people ( white and black ) ask what you study, you say film - and the immediate reaction was "oh like Spike Lee!"  In general, I'm more team Spike. In a  larger sense, Spike and Tyler Perry remind me of family, the two uncles that are on some different shit, and argue it out every family get together. ( maybe that's just my fam, ha ).  I'm glad to see both of them being successful from doing something they love, but as a filmmaker neither one of them speaks to me 100 percent. Melvin Van Pebbles, Wendell B. Harris, Tim Reid, the awesome Ernest Dickerson all deserve more light... In a lot of ways, besides James Spooner, no one is speaking to me in film just yet. And that makes me a little sad and very excited at the same time...let's see some wild black sci fi...

Comment by The Deacon on March 5, 2012 at 7:32pm

I love you SpookyCreep, but I don't necessarily agree that Tyler Perry makes movies for middle class blacks. His characters tend to span diverse backgrounds. Many of his films even play on subtle differences between working class blacks and middle class blacks. I guess what I don't understand is what makes one thing buffoonery and another thing not buffoonery. Idis came out against Tyler Perry, though he was in Daddy's Little Girl. A bit disingenuous seeing he played a drug dealer in The Wire. He was also a dope dealer in American Gangster. I had this very argument with a friend of mines only to find out 1/2 way through he never saw any Tyler Perry movies, but he's anti Tyler Perry. I even struggle with some of Spike Lee's characters. The basis of He Got Game for example, the warden lets the father of Jesus Shuttlesworth out of jail to convince him to attend the warden's alma mater. To top it off "Mr Super Black", Spike Lee, has Denzel's character laying with a white prostitute in the opening scene. I'm talking particulars here, not just perception. It took Denzel almost two years to get back in the good grace of black women. I'm not making a statement about interracial relationships or wrong or right, just that it's a hot topic in black communities, and Tyler would have been smart enough to know that. I tend to watch more foreign flicks or cutting edge TV (Luther, MI5, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad). My all time favorite movies are Dr. Zhivago and The Piano Teacher, so I'm not necessarily approaching this from a singular point of view. I'm not saying I'm right or wrong, but if we're going to debate this important topic, back up statements with particulars. Which leads me back to my original argument, Tyler Perry has his moments of buffoonery, but I don't think a blanket can be thrown over all his work.

Comment by oilkanlarry on March 5, 2012 at 6:55pm

The one thing that bothers me in all of this, was Lee did make a veiled statement but he initially did not say Tyler Perry. The interviewer did. Easily this could be figured to be Perry which I believe was the target but he never actually threw a name which is a big thing in the community. I mean the stereotype is that we toss each other jabs... but we leave the name out. It's just wrong to put someone on blast or "snitch them out". The interviewer put Spike on blast and possibly if it stayed on the low Perry could have saved face by thinking in his head "He meant me didn't he." Due to that, now we have a beef that could have been avoided making both of them look like beefin rappers. While Lee made some disparaging statements it was done eloquently and from the angle of a small opinion. Perry say "Spike can go to hell." in a dozen interviews. Thats almost strengthening Lee's idea that Perry is an arrogant hack who can't take criticism. At the end of the day no matter who you are your going to get criticism and that means you made it. Perry responded in a way that makes me think he is under the impression that all of us are supposed to like his ass. That don't sit well if he is the would be king of black cinema.

Comment by Satan's Crow on March 5, 2012 at 6:52am

 Perry isn't even in the same league as Spike Lee. Perry writes for the black middle class and his films are as boring and unimaginative as mainstream generally tends to be. Who the fuck is this Madea character? Someone we've already seen a thousand times before, that's who.

   "Swiming, in the mainstream/ is such a lame dream/ no method to the maddness/ beat my head against the wall" If memory serves me right, I believe that was the Circle Jerks.


Comment by Mark Clemons on March 5, 2012 at 1:19am

I like Tyler's flicks without Madea a more than when with Madea in them.All black filmakers should represent black cinema,not just 1.

Comment by weallfail on March 5, 2012 at 12:24am

I tried finding a director battle that was more divisive, more provoked, and broader and have found none. Most were fights over the artistic direction of a franchise or pride. Michael Bay did have a feud with Uwe Bole over the quality of their movies.


@The oOoohh Baby Gimme Mores:


Spike Lee can throw darts. My question is whether or not those darts hit their target and/or had their intended effect.

Spike Lee calls bullshit on quite a few directors, actors, and the industry in general. I hope his purpose would be to raise awareness and foster a serious dialogue, but I am not Spike Lee. He probably feels that it is his responsibility to be the whistleblower, because of his experience and status. However, these arguments end up degenerating into a pissing contest.

I do agree with your conclusion. Spike Lee should focus his efforts on the industry and the movie-goers if his intent is to bring more equality into the business.

Comment by Black Rock Revival on March 4, 2012 at 7:03pm

There can't be just one representative of black cinema. Why wasn't either of the two involved in the making of RED TAILS? Tyler seems to put black woman at one end of the spectrum. Real poor and smart, or real rich and crazy. Spike Lee seems to have lost steam and funding. Which is understandable in the new Hollywood climate. But who needs Hollywood with all the rich Ball Players out here. The Master Ps' and Ice Cubes'?  The two should work together to balance the visual. But they aren't the only Black film makers to admire. Just the richest. "SHE HATE ME" was a my book.


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