Tyler Perry is a terror, whose productions aren’t good in the most acute sense. But when viewed through camp’s flamboyant lens, the intrinsic value of Perry’s work becomes clearer.
Tyler Perry and his work is the subject of an outsized amount of derision and praise, but one thing’s for certain — the Perryverse is entertaining.
You can go back and forth for an eternity contemplating the peaks and valleys of Tyler Perry because he’s nothing less than a labyrinth: a cascading list of bonafides that demand “yeah, but,” as a counter. He tells stories for Black people, but those stories are riddled with stereotypes and could easily be interpreted as vehicles that perpetuate almost every “ism” under the sun. Yeah, it’s cool that Perry owns the largest film studio in the United States, but what remains to be seen is whether or not Tyler Perry Studios will act as a shallow representation facade that ultimately serves his capital investments. During his lengthy career, he’s only produced one film — 2013’s Peeples — that he didn’t write, direct, or star in. There’s really no reason why Brad Pitt, who has less money and a whole lot less melanin than Perry, has quietly produced and championed the work of more burgeoning filmmakers of color than him.
If we’re honest though, there’s one thing at the center of the Venn diagram for Perry’s detractors and cheerleaders — the man makes entertaining content. Excessive, bewildering, outrageous, ostentatious, provocative content that’s best described as camp. Cinematic Black camp has had its dignitaries and classics: Rudy Ray Moore, B.A.P.S., Purple Rain, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Bamboozled, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to name a few. You can’t talk about camp and movies without mentioning Paris is Burning because it’s undeniably the most important piece of media concerning camp. When you talk about camp in the last 20 years, the conversation is incomplete without Tyler Perry. He wields his powers to produce quantity over quality and sees himself as an epochal entertainer. His roots are in theatricalization and the southern Baptist church, where bombast and performance reign supreme. The lifeblood of his long, fruitful career is an aversion to high-quality filmmaking in favor of pure entertainment. You can’t help but crown Perry the king of cinematic Black camp.
In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag says, “The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” The most prominent piece of writing on the subject, the essay goes on to list a whopping 58 signifiers of camp. But there’s two in particular that stick out when considering Perry: that “camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles,” and “the ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”
Very few things about Perry himself and his work don’t scream “artifice and exaggeration.” Perry writing, directing, and producing about 100 episodes of television in about a year is camp. How he somehow played host to (former) British royalty for months is camp. The fact that he made not one, but two, Boo! A Madea Halloween movies simply based on a well-crafted joke from Chris Rock’s Top Five, is camp. And of course, bringing the world Mabel “Madea” Earlene Simmons in the first place is one of the purest manifestations of camp to ever become a fixture in Hollywood.
A typical line of defense Perry shoots at his detractors is that he makes art for Black folks to enjoy and that speak Black folks’ language. His characters are based on his family, elders, and friends; Madea, he says, is an amalgam of his mother and his aunt, and likely a revolving door of Black women from his childhood. Black people may see their own grandmother in Madea in spurts: in those tell-it-like-it-is-isms, the threats that follow backtalk, the investment in Christianity, the protectiveness. But Madea is unnatural in the most grandiose of ways. She totes a gun; was a felon by the age of nine; is a perpetual line stepper and sinner; had a father who hunted dogs for dinner; and is a nine-time widow. Madea is too many things at once; too many perceived contradictions to be anything other than absurd. The fact that she’s portrayed in drag by a 6-foot-5-man who weighs over 200 pounds is just the chef’s kiss to all of this character’s outlandishness and camp laurels.
That Perry makes good films or television is not really up for debate, at least not in good faith. The majority of Perry’s work is a home for over-the-top drama, awkward and repetitive dialogue, poor performances, bad direction, choppy editing, dull cinematography, and questionable set design. Perry is a skilled Tommy Wiseau with more funding and a basic working knowledge of filmmaking’s best practices. Most filmmakers find a writer’s room invaluable and would never dare shoot entire feature films with large Hollywood budgets in a week or less. He just decides to ignore those best practices anyway. The quality of his work obviously suffers from his arrogance and churn and burn mentality. But his work is entertaining as hell. You could never accuse a Perry production of dullness.
At the beginning of his film career, Perry’s oeuvre contained sincere attempts at drama, but the elements of camp have always been present. There’s, of course, Madea, and characters so cruel they act like villains in a Disney movie, like Charles McCarter from Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Mike from Why Did I Get Married? However, with recent projects like TV shows The Oval and The Haves and the Have Nots, Perry has almost completely abandoned sympathetic or rational narratives in favor of unhinged productions, where cruel characters are the norm and the melodrama is ornate.
The Oval, Perry’s political drama, begins with a poorly choreographed brawl between the President and the First Lady, and this sloppy violence permeates the entire show. At one point, the First Lady gets so angry during a fight, she just sprints into a wall and knocks herself out. A viral moment from the show sees her son — a perverted serial killer — masturbating, and throwing his semen on a woman who barely reacts. Adding to the insanity is a plot where one of the main characters has his daughter kidnapped by her mother who is a member of a cult called the Rakudushis — which is pronounced like Madea butchering “Rajneesh” from Wild Wild Country — with this cult being the focus of Perry’s equally bizarre The Oval spinoff, Ruthless. The twists and turns and the character’s behaviors in The Oval are nonsense, but they’re comic gold.
The Haves and the Have Nots is a classic soap opera that finds Perry at his Perryist. Each piece of dialogue is surface level, meaningless, and painfully expository. The plot is predictable, the acting is abysmal, and the score sounds like stock music from iMovie. The characters are overly stupid, irrational, and evil. Perry deploys so little plausibility in this show’s displays of simple human behavior and physics that it’s nothing short of fascinating. In a scene that finds a car explode during a wife’s attempted murder on her estranged husband and his new woman, one character has their unconscious body shoot dozens of feet from the vehicle straight into the camera. Later as the fire department hoses down the crime scene, a skeleton burnt to a crisp sits in the driver’s seat, but the windshield, hood, and leather seats all appear unscathed — after an explosion so powerful it creates a mushroom cloud. The Haves and the Have Nots is so atrocious it’s decadent. You have to park your car and go touch the wreckage with your fingertips to convince yourself that what’s in front of you isn’t just a figment of your imagination.
Tyler Perry is a terror, whose productions aren’t good in the most acute sense. But when viewed through camp’s flamboyant lens, that southern Baptist upbringing, and his origins in theater, the intrinsic value of Perry’s work becomes clearer. It’s really the only way to understand his filmography. Perry gives us very realistic Black aphorisms, casts icons in roles, and tells stories that are relatable if you don’t go beyond a basic elevator pitch of the plot. These bits of hyperrealistic nods and winks to Blackness only exacerbate his work’s uncanny valley, where the exaggeration and the artifice is the point. If Black people had a culture of midnight movie pilgrimage for campy classics like The Room or Rocky Horror Picture Show, Perry would be the undisputed king. Although that hasn’t become a reality yet, at least we get a semblance of that when the absurdity of his work gets roasted on social media. It doesn’t really matter whether or not Perry makes “good” movies and television. The true measure of an artist’s work isn’t the quality of their art. The artist is efficient if they successfully take you along the ride of their creation and Perry just wants to entertain you. Yeah, his work is awful, but he always does what he came to do.
H. Drew Blackburn is a writer based in Dallas, Texas, whose work has been published by Texas Monthly, GQ, Complex and more. He’s working on a few screenplays. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @hdrewblackburn.