By Carl Kozlowski
Since exploding onto the nation’s movie screens from seemingly nowhere in 2005, Tyler Perry has created a media empire that has been nearly unprecedented in movie history. Certainly no other African-American filmmaker has ever attained his level of clout, as Perry has written, directed, produced, and starred in 11 movies since his first movie, DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN.
Of course, with such wild success has come wild controversy, for the centerpiece of Perry’s success has been his portrayal of a character named Madea. She’s a wise-cracking, comically abusive and pot-smoking older lady, whom Perry plays in drag! Some other black filmmakers like Spike Lee have criticized Perry, accusing Perry of being too uncomfortably close to racial stereotypes of the past.
At a press event for Perry’s newest movie, MADEA’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY, Perry addressed Spike Lee’s criticisms in a most unexpected fashion by railing at me for a question I was making about a completely different kind of potential backlash. I wanted to know if the black churchgoing community that makes up his strongest fan base (for Perry’s films are all rooted deeply in Christian themes and values) are likely to give him a backlash over the amount of marijuana use and comments about the drug in the new movie. (Such material is rampant throughout the movie, as a new character named Aunt Bam smokes more pot here than seems to be consumed in a Cheech and Chong movie.)
The movie itself is hard to review, as it’s filled with Perry’s usual mix of wildly conflicting emotions of happiness and sadness, faith and despair, and is often over-the-top due to its prior history as a stage play in which the actors all played loudly to the back seats of theaters nationwide.
Perry’s outraged response – keyed to his misunderstanding my question – caused national news on countless film-related websites. So, if you really want to know what went down, keep reading:
Q: You’re in the character of Madea in costume more than any of your other movies. How challenging was it to direct at the same time?
TYLER: It wasn’t challenging for me because I worked with a lot of the same people as before. So my team knows it’s me calling the shots when in costume. But, I’m sure for the new people it’s strange seeing me stand there in the wig and costume going, ‘Ok move over here,’ and then saying. “Action!’ And, I’m in the middle of the scene with them. It’s very interesting, but it worked well.
Q: Why does everybody love Madea so much? Is it because she can say all the things regular people feel they can’t? And, have you ever discussed teaming up with Martin Lawrence as Big Momma?
TYLER: We had discussed it at one point; I thought it would be funny. As far as Madea goes, I think everybody white, black, Jewish, Asian, of a certain generation you knew this woman. She said what she wanted to say and would smack you’re a–, but she’s not around any more. She’s that 100-year-old tough-talking cookie.
Q: What considerations were made for the characters in this movie? You’re known for putting a lot of thought into whom you wanted to work with.
TYLER: I use Old Spice, so I knew I wanted to work with Isaiah [Mustafa, of the popular new Old Spice commercials]. When I wrote it, I knew I had certain people I wanted to work with. Cassi [Davis] I worked with on House of Payne, and she was my sidekick on the road for years. I wanted a younger, more hype and exciting group so I had people like Bow Wow. David [Mann] and Tam [Tamela J. Mann] I’ve worked with before, and Isaiah I was excited about doing something different with. Loretta [Devine] is one of the hardest working people around and is even working right now today. I just wanted to work with a really open cast.
Q: How do you decide is too much Madea? How do you balance giving the audience what they want with her while still telling your other stories in the film?
TYLER: This one was easy for me because I’d already done the show 125 times on the road in live performances. Cassi was right there with me in the first leg of the tour. The live audience told me what they wanted to see and what they didn’t, but the truth is this is more Madea than any of them combined, because after FOR COLORED GIRLS and WHY DID I GET MARRIED TOO, I just wanted to have some fun and really enjoy myself.
Q: Is it harder to work with adults or kids?
TYLER: It depends, because some adults are worse than kids. It really depends on who you’re working with.
MOVIEGUIDE®: Do you ever get any flack. . .?
TYLER: I knew this was coming – flack about what?
MOVIEGUIDE®: Not about Madea. No, a lot of your audience is church folks. I was wondering if they give you a hard time about pot jokes?
TYLER: I was really ready to get you. I thought you was going to ask about Spike Lee. I’m so sick of hearing about damn Spike Lee. Spike can go straight to H—! You can print that. I am sick of him talking about me, I am sick of him saying, ‘this is a coon; this is a buffoon.’ I am sick of him talking about black people going to see movies. This is what he said: “you vote by what you see,” as if black people don’t know what they want to see. Spike needs to shut the H— up. . . . I’m so sorry I jumped on you.
On this one I pushed the envelope a little bit. Something happens to you at 40, and, when you lose your mother, you get to this place in your life where you’re like, You know what? It don’t even matter. Don’t take things as serious as I used to. I pushed the envelope a little bit. I know some church folks are gonna be like oh, but I have some who have a problem every time I say “H—” in one of the shows. So, there are some who will think it’s too much, but then there are others who know that Madea is not the Christian in the movie, but the Christian themes are in there. So sorry so sorry! I just thought Spike Lee was in the air.
Q: You talk about some health concerns like diabetes and prostates. How challenging was it coming up with material that would satisfy old fans while still drawing the interest of new ones?
TYLER: People say where do your stories come from. Well, I’m black and I live in a neighborhood where I sometimes walk down the street and see things. For instance, with the fast food scene here, one time I drove up to a drive thru at Burger King in Atlanta, pulled up the window and ordered a Whopper and the lady said, “We ain’t got no meat.” You can’t make that stuff up, man. That’s where the whole Madea fast-food scene came from. So being able to have all those kinds of experiences, be around people who are around all kinds of things and will tell you the truth. This was born out of me needing a place to release after my mother died. I wrote it and went on the road with it, and then many other things my family was going through at the time. I shut everything down and went on the road instead of shooting COLORED GIRLS, nobody prepares you for turning 40 and for that kind of grief. And, together is a combination.
Q: What inspired the letter yesterday?
TYLER: Going into this junket. I was writing in an open email about people and how hard people work to discourage people from seeing my work. This is where the Spike Lee thing comes from – that this is Stepin Fetchit, this is coonery or buffoonery. They try so hard to get people aboard with them in this mob mentality, to come against what I’m doing but this is what I want to make clear to everybody, especially black people: I’ve never seen Jewish people attack Jerry Seinfeld and say, “This is a stereotype.” I’ve never seen Italian people attack THE SOPRANOS. I’ve never seen Jewish people complain about MRS. DOUBTFIRE or Dustin Hoffman in TOOTSIE. This is not something I can undo.
Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois went through the exact same thing. Langston Hughes said that Zora Neale Hurston, the woman who wrote THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD [a 1937 novel], was a new version of the “darkie” because she spoke in a Southern dialect and a Southern tone. And, I’m sick of it from us. We don’t have to worry about anybody else trying to destroy us and take shots because we do it to ourselves.