The (a)Morality of Tyler Perry

Tyler Perry loves to tell a good morality tale. Whether his movies or stage plays are offering up what goes for humor in Perry’s universe by way of Perry in drag as Madea , or chronicling a wealthy man learning how to be true to himself and others, or following tight-knit friends as they weather the trials of marriage, there is always a lesson to be learned, one supported by fidelity, fortitude, faith, and a touch of fire and brimstone. Tyler Perry would have us believe that his conception of God is in everything.

He has been writing plays and films since he was 22. Perry’s start was modest, staging his first play at a community theatre and less than a decade later, his plays were a popular mainstay on the chitlin’ circuit. In 2005, he made his first movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and since then, Perry has also been a box office success, with his films grossing more than a half-billion dollars.

Perry’s rise is noteworthy for many reasons not the least of which is that he understands real power in Hollywood lies in the complete ownership of creative work. Perry writes, directs, produces and often stars in his movies. He has several television projects in production and a lucrative distribution deal with Lionsgate films. He owns and runs Tyler Perry Studios, the rare black-owned production studio in the United States. He has collaborated with kingmaker Oprah Winfrey and counts among his coterie of friends, any number of influential and “important” people. In many ways, Tyler Perry seems unstoppable and to see a black man achieve this kind of success in a notoriously exclusive and predominantly white industry is laudable.

The problem is that Tyler Perry is building his success on the backs of black women and the working class, by using them, all too often, to teach his lessons, to make his points, or to make them the butts of his jokes. In many of Perry’s movie, women are not to be trusted. Women are regularly punished in these movies whether by abuse, addiction, or adultery. While there are “good” women in his films, there are so many bad women—women who are unfulfilled by their lives and/or marriages and are then punished when they try to find fulfillment. An unspoken message, all too often, is “You should be grateful for what you’ve got.”

Perry’s latest film, Temptation, features a fairly talented cast including Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Lance Gross, Vanessa Williams, Brandy Norwood, and, perhaps most oddly, Kim Kardashian who is exactly as terrible in this movie as you would expect. There were high hopes for this film, borne of the optimism that finally, after years of writing, directing, and producing plays, screenplays, and television scripts, Perry might finally move beyond the mediocrity so much of his work is mired in.

Certainly, Temptation is one of the most polished of Perry’s films but that is not saying much. The movie is still hampered by uneven acting, strange directorial choices (ie. Vanessa William’s “French” accent), a weak screenplay, and some rather sloppy editing. At one point Lance Gross, as Brice, hoarsely shouts “JUDITH,” over and over. During the screening I attended, every single person began laughing, loudly. It was not meant to be a humorous moment.

It is saying something that these are the least of Temptation’s worries.

When the movie opens, a marriage counselor chooses to ignore professional standards and tells a client contemplating infidelity about her own “sister.” Judith fell in love with her husband Brice when they were mere children, married very young, and ended up in Washington, D.C. Judith works as a counselor for a high-end dating service while her husband, Brice is a pharmacist for a small drugstore. They have a modest apartment and a modest but good relationship.

We’re supposed to believe Judith is dissatisfied though her dissatisfaction is never really expressed save for when Judith is dismayed by things like her husband forgetting her birthday for the second year in a row or when she balks at Brice suggesting it will be ten or fifteen years before she can start her own counseling practice.

Enter Harley, a handsome billionaire in talks to partner with Janice, Judith’s boss. This is the flimsiest of pretenses and Perry never bothers to make this plot even a little plausible. Judith and Harley’s attraction is palpable and thus begins a seduction that Judith demurs for quite some time because she is married and a “good girl.” The seduction includes innuendo, flowers, and meaningful staring. This is a morality play, after all.

Eventually, Harley flies Judith to New Orleans for “business” on his private jet, always the gateway to sin, and they enjoy the city, oblivious to her marital obligations. On the return flight, despite Judith openly saying no to Harley’s sexual advances and fighting him off, the couple engages in what looks a lot like rape but is thinly disguised as sex. This is the beginning of Judith’s end. This is the climax of Perry’s morality tale. Woman, thou art fallen.

By the end of Temptation, Judith has been punished and severely. She descends into a so-called hell on earth, dressing provocatively, drinking too much, quitting her job, and disrespecting her mother, her marriage, and herself. She is violently beaten by Harley, only to be rescued by Brice—the good man, the steady man. Most egregiously, Judith contracts HIV and ends up single, a broken woman, limping to church while Brice lives happily ever after with a beautiful new wife and young son. He is, of course, still his ex-wife’s pharmacist.  

There are so many appalling elements to how this sordid morality tale plays out. There are so many appalling messages about sexuality, consent, the ways men and women interact, ambition, happiness, and HIV.

As with most of Perry’s movies, good black men who are content with their stations are the moral compasses by which we should all set our true North. Perry would have you believe the road to hell is paved with personal and professional happiness. Ambition is dangerous and not to be trusted, especially in a woman.

Perry has a finely honed obsession with fetishizing the working class, which in and of itself, is not a problem, and could almost be admired. It’s that his motives are disingenuous. It’s that Perry denigrates one thing in order to elevate another instead of suggesting that there is pride to be had in being working class but that aspiring toward anything more isn’t inherently evil. That the wealthy are regularly demonized in Perry films is quite the irony given the enormous wealth Perry has amassed from a largely working class audience.

Time and again in Perry’s movies, there is a pathological formula, where truth and salvation and humility will be found by returning to working class roots. In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, a wealthy lawyer, Charles, throws Helen, his wife of eighteen years out on the street. She learns to stand on her own, with the help of her working class family. She slowly falls in love with Orlando, a working class man. Because Perry loves to punish his characters to make a point, Charles is shot in the back by an angry client and only has Helen to turn to because his mistress has abandoned him. Through Helen’s kindness and the goodness of God, Charles learns to walk again and though he wants to reconcile with his wife, she divorces him and runs to Orlando. The working class man triumphs over all.

In The Family That Preys, ambitious Andrea desperately wants more out of life than she has with her construction worker husband. She has an affair with her wealthy boss William, enjoying all the trappings of both her own success and her infidelity. There are lots of machinations involving a family business and the like. In the end, Andrea ends up poor, alone with her son in an apartment while her now ex-husband thrives. Yet again, the working class hero rises.

Good Deeds, one of Perry’s most recent films, follows wealthy Wesley Deeds who has always done what is right and expected of him. When he meets Lindsey, a down on her luck single mother who cleans his building, he begins to realize he wants more out of life. Instead of relying on the “magical negro” trope seen in many movies (The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Help, etc), Perry uses the “magical sassy maid” trope to his advantage. To round things out, Wesley’s wealthy mother is kind of evil and his wealthy brother is a resentful alcoholic, but Wesley is saved from the perils of wealth by quitting his job so he can go find himself, accompanied by Lindsey and her daughter of course, in Africa.

Perry is not only intensely concerned with class. Sexuality should be chaste and contained if you are a woman. Trying new sexual moves with your husband is unbecoming, but if you are a man, you should take whatever it is you want from a woman. Perry would have you believe a just punishment for infidelity, for human frailty, is HIV. He is gleefully trading on ignorance because he is a small man with a limited imagination.

Part of the pleasure of the movies is stepping away from reality. One of Perry’s most significant problems, however, is how he completely reconstructs reality to suit his purposes in ways that are utterly lacking artistic merit.

Many of the choices he makes in Temptation are blatantly contradicted by factual reality. People are marrying later than ever before so we have to suspend our disbelief as Perry constructs this fairytale that Judith and Brice would meet as young children, stay in love, marry as teenagers, and go on to complete both undergraduate and graduate educations. In a study of first marriages as part of the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth, researchers found that the median age for a first marriage is 25.8 for women and 28.3 for men. Black women had the lowest probability of being in a first marriage by the age of 25. Women with a bachelor’s degree were also less likely to be in a first marriage by the age of 25. But let’s suspend our disbelief just enough to imagine this young couple married and happily so.

Perry has also set Temptation in a world where divorce is the exception rather than the rule. The reality is that marriages end and often. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, black women have a much higher rate of first divorce (30.4 for every 1,000 marriages), and black women with a college degree experience a first divorce rate at 29 out of every 1,000. The only group more likely to divorce is black women with some college (36.7 out of every 1,000). The statistics for marital longevity are not on Judith and Brice’s side so the idea that Judith is a sinner among sinners for wanting more from her marriage or wanting out of her marriage, is absurd.

Then there is this matter of so callously dealing with HIV as if we are still in the 1980s, full of profound ignorance about the disease. Perry shamelessly exploits HIV for the sake of his very narrow and subjective morality when HIV disproportionately affects black women who make up so much of his core audience. The disservice he does to this audience is hard to stomach.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of new HIV infections is twenty times higher for black women than white women. An estimated 1 in 32 black/African American women will be diagnosed with HIV infection in their lifetime, compared with 1 in 106 Hispanic/Latino women and 1 in 526 white women. These are staggering statistics. Dealing with HIV prevention, treatment, and reducing the stigma surrounding HIV are important issues for the black community, issues deserving of both critical and creative attention. That attention should be handled ethically and with human decency—concepts with which Tyler Perry seems to have no familiarity.

Of course, also according to the Centers for Disease Control, HIV prevalence rates are inversely related to annual household income in urban poverty areas. The likelihood of a woman in Judith and Brice’s demographic contracting HIV is not very. Statistics show that the more educated a person is and the more money they make, the less likely they are to contract HIV. As he so often does, Tyler Perry wants to have it every which way but right and a high cost is being exacted so this man can get exactly what he wants.