Tyler Perry vs. Spike Lee: Black Identity Claims in Film
Perry understands himself in the mode of Oprah: above critical discussion with those who might challenge his content and question his vision. Lee’s disapproval, however, smacks of its own shortsightedness, as his work is similarly informed by patriarchal views of Black woman. His willingness, however, to participate in public discussions and be in dialogue about race, politics, and art confirm openness to critical engagement and a concern about more than simply his financial bottom line. He also pushes against standard cultural beliefs and beyond our comfort zone in order to generate discussion.
Perry could benefit from a close study of Lee’s politically rich and artistically fertile work. This may help him understand how his stories about Black women’s salvation being dependent on finding the “right” man is shallow, narrow, and offensive; how his Madea character is both funny as well as degrading; and how his humorous characters often refer to and depend on traditional Black stereotypes. Lee might take heed to Perry’s focus on intimate relations and veneration of religion. This might remind him that the way we can talk about race has shifted, even though our racial terrain has not; that his gender portrayals are sometimes retrograde, hypersexualized, and immature; and that prophetic politics without a strong accounting of the power of Black religious work is deficient. In other words, both would benefit from making the either/or dichotomy between relying on standard narratives false or exploding them a both/and possibility.
One way that people think about Tyler Perry’s brand of Christianity is as a kind of priestly Christianity. On this argument, Perry is interested not in challenging political structures, confronting economic injustice, or criticizing a prison industry that disproportionately incarcerates Black people, he is invested in soothing the souls of Black people by bringing them closer to his conception of God and belief in Jesus. On this framing, Lee would represent a prophetic voice in film, one who fights against injustice and strikes a blow for freedom. But, as the work of Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer and others shows, the opposition between priestly and prophetic is illusory. Thus, both Spike and Tyler should work with each other to create a vision for Black filmmaking that better reflects the complexity of black life.
It may be, however, that Perry and Lee represent two distinct yet unsatisfying ways of grappling with Black identity and Black rage. Perry, uncomfortable with rage as a fundamental part of our humanity, fully personalizes rage and always provides a romantic resolve to it. Lee trades on rage: it seems that he wants to inflame Black energies to awaken our sleeping Black collective consciousness against corporate interests that produce economic injustice and the lack of racial parity. He cannot see, however, that without a movement to channel that rage, it runs the risk of violence and anger; not peace and equality. Maybe the question we should pose to ourselves and both of these artists is how do we effectively channel Black rage? This might help us all reinterpret and rethink our capacity towards rage, something our art too often irrepressibly denies or irresponsibly ignites.Andre C. Willis is Assistant Professor of Religion at Yale Divinity School.