Though Perry doesn’t know or care, I have been disturbed at his elevation by the mainstream as some storyteller of the black experience. And, if I am honest, I am none too pleased about his popularity within the black community either. It’s not that I don’t admire the brother’s hustle. I wish I had that kind of work ethic and mojo. But I am no fan of the Perry ethos. I think he makes black women’s lives harder, in particular, by reinforcing sexism and the centuries-old stereotypes the plague us. I wish a brother like Perry, with so much money and support behind him, could present a better case for black womanhood than the big, ball-busting granny and the embittered, work-obsessed, money-hungry bourgie chick who doesn’t know how to appreciate a good, blue collar man. Actually, his portrayal of blackness as a whole, to me, amounts to a combination of dysfunction, shucking and jiving and saccharine set to gospel music.
My views on Perry haven’t changed. He is never going to be my favorite director. But I realize the energy I have put into railing against his efforts is misdirected. And I realize that I am indulging in a form of respectability politics that is more hurtful than helpful.
My eyes were opened while writing an article, “No Disrespect: Black Women and the Burden of Respectability,” for Bitch magazine. Inspired by negative reaction to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of maids in The Help, I wrote about how the personal and professional choices of black women in the public eye are routinely judged through the perilously unflattering lens of the majority culture — Eurocentric, patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative and middle class — and found wanting. Davis and Spencer (and Halle Berry and Erykah Badu and Beyonce) are not allowed to be simply women or performers, but, by dint of their blackness, are asked to serve as ambassadors whose every decision reinforces the respectability of black folks to white America. That means Davis and Spencer are criticized for playing domestic workers. Halle Berry is criticized for having graphic sex with a white man in Monster’s Ball. And Erykah Badu is judged for having children out of wedlock as Beyonce is praised for using her uterus “the right way.” That is how respectability politics work. And, in my article, I judge that extra burden as unfair and damaging.
I have, hypocritically, directed the same unfair expectations I abhor toward Tyler Perry and his career. I have expected him to be my ambassador, communicating my secular, feminist, middle class, progressive values to the masses. But he is not me. However disappointing I find his schtick, it is his. Perry has done the work and paid the price. And there is no doubt he believes he is doing what is best, not only for himself, but as a member of the black community. And there is this: For as much as I don’t identify with Perry’s output, there are plenty of black folks who see their lives reflected in his storytelling.
There is something very beautiful about looking and your own opinions and saying, “I was wrong.”