Tyler Perry’s “Madea” character has been brining joy to black audiences for a long time. His hilarious antics as the gun-toting, Bible-thumping, no holds barred grandma is appealing in a familiar way to many black people who definitely already have that grandma.
When I was a child, my father would tell stories of how his mother used to kill chickens by swinging them around on a rope by the neck until dead, and being a strict Seventh-Day Adventist, she wouldn’t let us microwave Ramen on the Sabbath. Grandmas was not to be played with.
Whatever Tyler Perry’s intentions, he’s telling very pro-black stories with his artwork. In “Motherless Child”, a girl sings about feeling like a motherless child. It’s plot relevant, but that also an allegory for the black experience. It’s the experience of feeling unloved, unwanted, or unprotected, something author W.E.B. DuBois would describe as “being a poor man in a land of dollars.”
Songs like “Motherless Child” highlight the dilemma of creating pro-black art. For years, the entertainment industry has told itself countless times that the reason that more diverse films aren’t run is that they won’t do as well. This is despite the fact that Hollywood saw its black viewership go up for the first time since 2009 in 2013, making minorities a larger percentage of moviegoers overall that year.
National Association of Theatre Owners chairman/president John Fithian attributed the jump to a diverse slate of films, including a proliferation of titles featuring African-American themes and stars.
Just for context, black Americans make up 13.2% of the United States. That means that 13 percent of the United States accounted for a full quarter of movie sales in 2013.
That’s a demographic you can’t afford to ignore or tap.
Yet Hollywood keeps insisting that a chief reason for certain oversights in diversity lies in that they have to make movies that “appeal” to moviegoers.
And so Tyler Perry’s art is relegated to simply junk food for black folks, because it doesn’t “play well.”
Misunderstood in America
Another way joy and hilarity can turn sinister in a hurry is that it isn’t understood. And it’s not sure whether or not it’s intentional.
So when Dave Chappelle makes the Chappelle show with very politically astute commentary, it’s brushed off. The Boondocks has tons to say about racial justice and white supremacy, but viewers (usually white) can only remember and chuckle about “nigga moments.”
In the case of Madea, you might sing a song like “Motherless Child” and cement in white viewers’ minds a picture of the African-American as all coming from destitute homes, dens of their own making that hinder their own progress in the world.
The paradox is created for black characters that being honest for the character creates a problem for the people, and being honest for the people destroys the value of the character.
We have to fight against interpretations such as these, but they’re getting more difficult every day. Disney’s Zootopia had a lot to say about prejudice and bigotry, but the message flew over many heads, and not just the children.
So it would seem that black filmmakers can either make aggressively pro-black films like Madea, Selma, 12 Years a Slave, and “alienate” white viewers (which is synonymous with “fail to pacify”), or they can make works of nuance and depth like The Boondocks and Zootopia and have a message that is so clear, but intentionally distorted or ignored.
Either way, the message is that pro-black media is not welcome. And either way, that has to change.
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