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Tyler Perry vs Spike Lee: Round 2 – And Perry Comes Out Swinging Wildly!

April 20, 2011

So, Spike finally got under Perry’s skin, or at least Perry couldn’t hold back any longer. Today Perry told reporters that Spike can “go straight to hell!” Pretty strong stuff for a spiritual guy like Perry.

My instincts, informed by working in poli-tricks and journalism, makes me think his outburst is a little too well timed, given that he’s on a press junket with a movie to come out. It’s the only way a smart businessman like Perry stands to gain from such a statement.

Of course the invective is the pull-quote, but Perry has gone on to explain further, arguing that the dispute between he and Lee is another example of Black people battling like crabs in a barrel, and – in a shocking expression of ignorance of other ethnics in the media controversy – that no other ethnicities have these kinds of squabbles (he also compared himself to W.E.B. Du Bois, but we’ll let that one slide for now).

Let’s take a step back and look at what Spike actually said to set off the debate in a 2009 interview with Black Enterprise magazine.

“We’ve had this discussion back and forth. When John Singleton [made Boyz in the Hood], people came out to see it. But when he did ‘Rosewood,’ nobody showed up. So a lot of this is on us! You vote with your pocketbook, your wallet. You vote with your time sitting in front of the idiot box, and [Tyler Perry] has a huge audience. We shouldn’t think that Tyler Perry is going to make the same film that I am going to make, or that John Singleton or my cousin Malcolm Lee [would make]. As African-Americans, we’re not one monolithic group, so there is room for all of that. But at the same time, for me, the imaging is troubling and it harkens back to ‘Amos n’ Andy.’”

It sounds like a reasonable, respectful observation, with Spike expressing an opinion that he isn’t alone in holding. Read what a regular movie goer said when speaking about Perry to The Denver Post:

“I wonder about intentionality,” began another woman sitting in a circle of 45 attendees. “I don’t know, for instance, what Tyler Perry is thinking when he’s portraying Madea. But one thing I think is that there has been this presence that has been very influential in his life — African-American women that have been strong, positive and quite humorous.

“And I think he’s taken that to a level that may ultimately undermine the very richness of what he got from the culture.”

More nuanced than Spike, but without the director’s gift for pithiness.

The debate about media representations of African-Americans by African-Americans has been going on long before Perry put on fake breasts. Aside from being concerned about Amos ‘n Andy, Black folks have been debating for years about ‘hood movies, Blaxploitation, and various subgenres of rap, just ticking off a few. While Perry clearly recognizes this given his comparisons of his feud with Lee to that between Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, he doesn’t seem to get it.

DuBois thought art by Negroes should serve to uplift the race; art as propaganda. Lee and Perry both seem ambivalent about the idea judging from their comments, though Lee leans DuBois’ way. Perry sees his art as a more populist version of uplift, in which he enlightens by beaming feel-good melodramas to the masses. If the means to that end call for broad humor and sassy drag, so be it. Whatever works.

Neither way is “right” or “wrong” as they are philosophies of art. Then the proper response is not “go to hell” or “stop complaining since I’m making money,” but “maybe Spike and his message could reach more people by making movies that more people want to see, laugh a little.”

Some think the disagreement between the two auteur is counterproductive. I don’t. It’s healthy. Perry’s feelings may be hurt, but neither he nor his bank account will be any poorer. Lee’s point – his main point – that ultimately the kinds of Black experiences we see on screen are largely determined by what kinds of films we pay to see, will be advanced. The decades old discussion will continue.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Elrancho permalink
    April 22, 2011 5:33 am

    I think in telling Spike Lee to go to hell, Tyler Perry has displayed a certain amount of arrogance and lack of class. Lee’s criticism of Perry was not unfair, nor was it malicious. I suspect that Perry’s financial success has given him the feeling that he cannot and should not have to face criticism. It often happens when people start believing their own hype.

  2. April 23, 2011 10:16 pm

    I am going to side with Tyler Perry because I believe he is correct. I think the reason Tyler used the W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T Washington example is because Du Bois was a snob. Du Bois believed in the talented tenth that only the uppity, white washed blacks can uplift the black race. Booker T Washington believed that blacks should help themselves and and he created his own college to help blacks. I think Tyler knows his black history.

    Tyler is writing what he knows he is a southern black man and Spike Lee is just uppity. Black people we are NOT a monolithic group. We are individuals. Some blacks like Tyler’s movie and some like Spike Lee. Why can’t both black directors co exist? Why does it matter that Tyler makes comedies? I think the criticisms of Tyler Perry by the white media are charged with racism.
    Think about it Mark, Tyler is the most powerful black director in Hollywood history. According to Forbes Magazine, Tyler made $125 million dollars. Tyler also owns his own studio. Tyler has considerable power and his movies he gets huge cuts from them.
    Tyler is a self made man and I respect him for his hustle.
    Spike Lee is jealous of Tyler Perry he will never make the kind of money Tyler is making.
    I think black people worry too much what white people think about us. Spike Lee is paying a price I believe. He tried to play the white man’s game and appeal to the Academy Awards and he never won an Oscar. I think Spike is lost. Tyler creates fear in whites and blacks because he proud of his blackness. Tyler’s brand of comedy is something a lot of blacks know about because we know these kind of characters exist in our lives. Of course, some of Tyler’s characters such as Madea are exaggerations but that’s just comedy.

  3. April 23, 2011 11:50 pm

    Most people who have an opinion either way on this issue recognize Perry’s box office take. No one has to think about how much he makes.

    I don’t know how old you are, but if you were aware in the late 80’s and early 90’s you’d have a pretty clear picture about Spike Lee and “playing the white man’s game.” (which is what, hockey?)

    I have a real problem with your use of the word “uppity” in this context. You are aware that’s a word racist White people used to describe Black men and women who “didn’t know their place,” right?

    Who is saying that Lee and Perry can’t coexist?

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