If you happened to buy a ticket to Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail without knowing what you were getting into, you might think you'd stumbled onto a cheery comedy about an overgrown granny with anger-management issues. A black Mrs. Doubtfire, say, with car chases and reefer jokes. You'd never suspect that you had strayed into the midst of a culture war one that's been simmering inside the African-American community since before blackface. ''I loved working with Tyler Perry, but he's a controversial, complicated figure,'' says Viola Davis, who costarred in Madea Goes to Jail and recently snagged an Oscar nomination for Doubt. ''People feel the images [in his movies] are very stereotypical, and black people are frustrated because they feel we should be more evolved. But there are very few black images in Hollywood, so black people are going to his movies. That's the dichotomy. Tyler Perry is making money.''
A lot of money. Jail has already earned more than $75 million, making it Perry's highest-grossing film to date. And his seven movies starting with his 2005 big-screen drag debut as Madea in Diary of a Mad Black Woman have grossed more than $350 million combined, putting him on track to join John Singleton and Keenen Ivory Wayans as one of the most successful black filmmakers ever. He may already be the most divisive. At a time when Barack Obama is presenting the world with a bold new image of black America, Perry is being slammed for filling his films with regressive, down-market archetypes. In many of his films there's a junkie prostitute, a malaprop-dropping uncle, and Madea, a tough-talking grandma the size of a linebacker (''Jemima the Hutt,'' one character calls her). ''Tyler keeps saying that Madea is based on black women he's known, and maybe so,'' says Donald Bogle, acclaimed author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. ''But Madea does have connections to the old mammy type. She's mammy-like. If a white director put out this product, the black audience would be appalled.''
Perry and his supporters disagree, to say the least. ''These stories have come out of my own pain and everything I've been through,'' the director says, referring to his six years of struggle, including three months living in his car in Atlanta, before his plays became such huge hits in Southern black theaters (a.k.a. the chitlin circuit) that even Hollywood couldn't ignore him. ''These characters are simply tools to make people laugh,'' Perry says. ''And I know for a fact that they have helped, inspired, and encouraged millions of people.'' In truth, the films are laced with moral lessons trumpeting forgiveness and personal responsibility. ''He's not out there promoting gangster culture,'' says Vicangelo Bulluck, executive director of the NAACP's Hollywood bureau. ''If anything, he's trying to make us think about family values.'' Nor is every African-American cultural critic up in arms over Perry's caricatures. ''Comedy and stereotypes go hand in hand,'' notes Nelson George, author of Blackface: Reflections on African Americans and the Movies and the memoir City Kid. ''That's why intellectuals have a hard time with humor.''
NEXT PAGE: ''Tyler Perry is simply reflecting the thinking of a lot of uneducated, working-class African-Americans.''