Tyler Perry vs. Spike Lee

Tyler Perry is not only opening his latest film, he is also opening up about unbalanced criticism from the media and fellow filmmaker Spike Lee.
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Tyler Perry is not only opening his latest film Madea's Big Happy Family, he is also opening up about unbalanced criticism from the media and fellow filmmaker Spike Lee.

Back in 2009, Mr. Lee shared his thoughts on the "complex subject" of Tyler Perry's Madea films and television shows. Lee acknowledged Perry's accomplishment, but he cautioned the filmmaker and audience against promoting what he considers stereotypes of black people.

Back then Lee acknowledged that regardless of his opinion or anybody else's, those alleged stereotypes resonate with audiences and have reaped box-office gold for Perry. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Perry weighs in on Lee's criticism:

This is where the whole Spike Lee [thing] comes from -- the negativity, this is Stepin Fetchit, this is coonery, this is buffoonery, and they try to get people to get on this bandwagon with them, to get this mob mentality to come against what I'm doing. I've never seen Jewish people attack Seinfeld and say 'this is a stereotype,' I've never seen Italian people attack The Sopranos, I've never seen Jewish people complaining about Mrs. Doubtfire or Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. I never saw it. It's always black people, and this is something that I cannot 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, was a new version of the darkie because she spoke in a southern dialect and a Southern tone.

Perry is correct. Black celebrities criticizing other black celebrities in the public sphere is nothing new. In fact, hip-hop has built an international industry out of black-on-black beef. At times it would seem there is no pleasing the black peanut gallery. Back in the '90s The Cosby Show wasn't authentic blackness. Now, Tyler Perry's southern grandmama Madea isn't authentic blackness. And it's not just among black entertainers that these imbroglios take place. Years ago Salma Hayek made disparaging remarks about Jennifer Lopez for not speaking Spanish and thereby not representing authentic "Latina-ness."

Now it could be that black people tend to have a much harder time coming to solidarity than civil rights newsreels would have you believe. This isn't the first public feud this month between two black icons. If you haven't seen Dr. Cornel West and Rev. Al Sharpton exchange strong words on MSNBC's The Black Agenda, you should catch it online.

Maybe competitiveness is elevated amongst black people due to limited resources and opportunity; or maybe, the reason you don't hear Jewish entertainers criticizing other Jewish entertainers is simply because the media isn't asking them to weigh in on one another's work.

Nevertheless, the cry from minority entertainers for "authentic" representation has a tendency, in itself, to be bigoted. The criticism seems to suggest that minorities are monolithic and that there is no spectrum when it comes to the minority experience. There are actually black people that can distinctly relate to Madea's family. Just as there are black people, and otherwise, that can distinctly relate to the Cosby family; and the characters that Jennifer Lopez has played; and the characters that Selma Hayek has played. There is room for all these portrayals and then some.

The problem and the solution to minority representation in Hollywood lies in the "then some," in the variety of choices available to the public. In that context, Spike Lee is right too. The frustration with black images in Hollywood becomes valid because there are so few images out there to choose from. I have given up on ever seeing a portrayal of myself on screen.

Minorities on the big screen tend to be represented by stereotypes. There is no Asian leading man who doesn't know kung fu in Hollywood films. You'd have to consult IMDB to find films, especially comedies, featuring moderate Muslims or contemporary Native Americans. In my experience, no one in Hollywood has any interest in changing this status quo.

The common thinking in the industry is the absence of cultural diversity in films is due, predominantly, to the lack of box-office potential in cultural diversity. There is no international market for English-speaking Asians, Native Americans and moderate Muslims. India, China, Japan, the Middle East all have their own booming film markets where Asians speak their own languages and play dramatic roles that don't involve self-effacing humor or martial arts; and religious Muslim culture is revered and respected.

The international market is also the reason Hollywood gives for not seeking black films that don't star Will Smith or Denzel Washington. It's true. I've seen the numbers. There aren't so many movie theaters in Africa and piracy is a real problem throughout the continent. The African Diaspora is so diverse, Europe and Britain's immigrant groups from all over Africa and the West Indies may have a harder time relating to the distinct Southern American culture presented in Perry's Madea franchise. And this disconnect goes both ways. How popular with African Americans was the BBC/HBO series No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency starring Jill Scott as a Botswanian private investigator? Not popular enough to keep it on the air after just one season. At the end of the day, Hollywood seems to assert that the world doesn't embrace cultural diversity or cultural stereotypes -- depending on how you see it, as much as we would all like to believe.

I think both Spike Lee and Tyler Perry have contributed excellent work to the world that has been groundbreaking, thought provoking and entertaining. They have each brought their distinct style to the big screen. They are different, but that's entirely positive. Instead of this conflict, it would be more encouraging to see them join forces and build up 40 Acres and Tyler Perry Studios. It would be nice to see them doing more to seek out new screenwriters, new producers and new investors to create new material.

We have the acting talent in spades. Halle Berry, Idris Elba, Rosario Dawson, Don Cheadle and so forth should be working more. We need minority talent behind the camera to make that happen. We need minority talent behind the camera so that new filmmakers, like Perry and Lee once were, don't have to reinvent the wheel every time they want to make a film with and about minorities. We need this sort of minority talent to help diversify the choices out there to appeal to a broader spectrum of audiences. For the limitation is in the choices not in either filmmaker.

Vanessa Carmichael's debut novel Blockbuster will be released this summer. Blockbuster is a fictional tale of life behind-the-scenes of Hollywood, where the treacherous business of show business meets the rarefied world of celebrity.

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