Here I go feeling conflicted again. With Gladys Knight joining Tyler Perry’s next Madea movie, I Can Do Bad All by Myself, I can rejoice that a mature black actress is getting work and that Knight is keeping up her acting chops (I was a Charlie & Co. fan eons ago). But every time Perry casts another actress of note or name, from Angela Bassett to Cicely Tyson, one can’t help but wonder if that;s entirely a good thing.
To be sure, Perry serves a vital function in the film community: He employs people who don’t get enough breaks. Viola Davis (Doubt) and Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) can get Oscar notice for their work in big-budget studio movies, but they’re also happy to work for Perry because big-budget studio movies – much less those with Oscar-worthy roles – have painfully inaccurate aim when it comes to landing in non-white actresses’ laps. (Or older actresses’ laps, or actresses with big mouths and bigger opinions, you get the picture.) Plus, there’s no denying that some actresses pick up work after appearing in Perry’s films, the most obvious example being Bassett, who after a few lean years starred in Meet the Browns last March and was on ER by October. Still, Perry has his critics, and not without reason (as EW explored last month in the feature “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Madea?”)
Those who knock Perry have a standard script: His characters flirt with entrenched stereotypes of African Americans; his films seem to perpetuate a kind of class warfare between working class and upwardly mobile, or “bourgie,” black people; and his movies reflect a general lack of cinematic artistry. If all that is true, then there are as many reasons to bemoan Knight’s Madea debut as to herald it. Simply put, there ought to be more options.
So here’s what I’m proposing (it’s a fantasy, I admit): Make Tyler Perry a real studio mogul. Sure, he’s got a lovely facility down in Atlanta, where lots of people collect paychecks. How about slapping some of that money down in front of Antoine Fuqua, John Singleton, or one of the many up-and-coming young directors who can speak to an African American audience? Black people are as diverse as everyone else, and we, too, deserve diversity of perspective. If Perry started investing in other directors, not only would there be more black cinema for audiences, there’d be more work for performers – and more profit for Perry. We’d get Gladys, good movies, and a revolutionary new business model for the studio system. Doesn’t that sort of mean everybody wins?