who should represent black cinema? spike lee? tyler perry? none of the above?

March 2, 2012

Every time a new Tyler Perry film is released, I find myself thinking back to a now infamous 2009 interview in which director Spike Lee, when asked about the state of black cinema, said: “A lot of stuff that’s on today is coonery and buffoonery, and I know it’s making a lot of money and breaking records, but we can do better.” This was, of course, a thinly veiled attack on Tyler Perry, who for the past decade has been churning out his own special brand of comedy-melodrama starring Madea, his 60-something-year-old alter-ego. Madea is a wise, foul-mouthed, weed smoking, Bible-thumping matriarch who some criticize for conjuring up negative stereotypes about black people. Even so, Madea has helped Perry break unprecedented records, especially for black filmmakers – last year he topped the Forbes list for the highest earning male in Hollywood. But in Perry’s new movie Good Deeds, there is no Madea for comic relief. It’s a sober exercise in oversentimentality; another foray into what I guess Perry considers to be serious filmmaking. The movie is, to put it bluntly, an effort, and little else.

Words by Zeba Blay

Good Deeds itself isn’t interesting, but at this stage in Perry’s career that’s neither here nor there. What is interesting is the shift in Perry’s on camera and behind-the camera personas, especially when you think about them in context of the feud that dominated any and all discussions about Perry, Spike Lee, and black films in general just a few short years ago. Good Deeds could be viewed, maybe, as a cinematic “go to hell” to Perry’s detractors – proof that he’s versatile, maybe even a little bit poignant, and not reliant on so-called “coonery and buffoonery” to entertain an audience.

But I’m uncomfortable with that idea. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the feud, because it wasn’t actually a feud, but a few choice and albeit stinging words slung over the breadth of months, always indirectly, always through the funnel of an interview. And while Lee’s comments were harsh, there was also some stark truth in them – just as, I think, there’s been truth in critics of Lee as well. What was uncomfortable about the so-called feud is how it devolved, so rapidly, into an angry arguement Hollywood was forcing these filmmakers and, ultimately, we the viewers to have.

The media had this strange fascination these two black men bickering, in the way the media holds a strange and perverse fascination with two beefing rappers – the more shit talked, the better. But does that same fascination extend to other directors? Can you think of an instance when the Martin Scorseses and Michael Bays of the industry were ever the subjects of this type of heated, all-consuming discussions about their craft or the state of cinema, or ever goaded into exchanging fighting words?

Don’t worry. I’ll wait.

The aftermath of the whole ugly business was this sort of unspoken ultimatum, a pointed finger demanding us moviegoers to choose who was right and who was wrong, who was actually talented and who was setting us back as a people. It was now more than a battle of aesthetics, of city folk and country folk, of high art and low art. It was now Tyler Perry or Spike Lee? Who, in fact, should represent black cinema?

Well, neither.

First of all I’m just going to say that I thik Lee is as inconsistent and pedantic as he is prolific, and Perry’s fault lies not in the supposed stereotypes of his characters but more in the fact that – let’s be really real – his movies are not “good.” But it’s frustrating that the question, the idea was even posed – even if not outright. It’s frustrating that black directors suffer under this heavy and ever-present burden of representation that, in a world where black filmmakers get so little opportunity to tell stories anyway, forces them to encompass everything that is the black experience when so often what they’re presenting, what any director presents, is only their experience.

Oh, and there is no black cinema – at least not Hollywood’s understanding of it. For the longest time, black filmmaking has existed in this weird bubble universe on the edge of Hollywood, and no matter how much money a black film makes, how much history is behind it, or what new heights it reaches artistically, the attention rarely has to do solely with  its artistic merit but on how it reflects black people and if it reflects black people the right way. That way, Hollywood won’t have to confront things like, say, its conspicuous dislike of Spike Lee who is too “militant” (which is really just another way of saying “You call us out on our racist bullshit and that makes us uncomfortable”), never mind his clear talent. And Tyler Perry, he will always be an oddity – of mild interest due to his astounding success but very little else.

But what’s more important is all the filmmakers who don’t even seem to really come up in the discussion, ever. Lee and Perry are part of a long and varied tradition of black filmmakers, including Oscar Michaeux (whose career began in 1919 and spanned decades), Gordon Parks, John Singleton, Melvin Van Peebles, Mario Van Peebles, Kasi Lemmons, Anthony Hemingway, Denzel Washington, Lee Daniels, Kenny Leon, Vaginal Davis, Doug E. Doug, Steve McQueen, and now newcomers like Terence Nance, Ava Duvernay and Dee Rees.   

So for me, the “feud” stands as a reminder not to allow Hollywood to try and rope me into accepting its idea that there can be only one black drector in Hollywood, to remember the triumphs and flaws in Lee, Perry, and all the black filmmakers their work is built upon.

No one should be the face of black cinema, as strange and intangible a concept as that is, because black cinema is a reflection of black culture which, as the readers of Afropunk know, is more complex and dynamic than the world gives us credit for. So, while we do need to be open about discussing the quality and the impact of the work we produce, we also need the freedom to have Do the Right Thing stand alongside Medicine for Melancholy, and have that stand alongside Pariah, and have that stand alongside yes, even Madea’s Big Happy Plot Contrivance. Together, collectively, they form a more comprehensive picture of something that’s so much bigger than Hollywood, so much bigger than cinema, and so much greater than the sum of its parts.

* Contributor Zeba Blay’s movie blog: Film Memory + @zblay on Twitter