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Is Tyler Perry's Historic Studio More Than A Representational Facade?
The legacy of Tyler Perry is one that will inevitably be acclaimed for his accumulation of immense capital. But nuance in the narrative lies in defining which Black community he is beholden to serving in his next era as an indisputable media mogul.
In June 2019, Tyler Perry received BET's Ultimate Icon award for his substantive work in a notoriously walled-off film and TV industry. While accepting this honor, Tyler shared a few words, proselytizing about the need to pay it forward via the self-coined maxim "help them cross" — his most momentous instance of such an act being the then-forthcoming establishment of Tyler Perry Studios at what was once called Fort McPherson in Atlanta. The studio had its grand opening on Saturday.
"That studio was once a confederate army base," he said during his speech. "Which means that there was [sic] Confederate soldiers on that base plotting and planning on how to keep 3.9 million Negroes enslaved. Now that land is owned by one Negro."
Spanning 330 acres — it can reportedly fit the lots of Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, Fox, and Sony with room to spare — it's hard not to be awed at the scale.Headline after headline reiterated the apocryphal narrative of Perry opening the "first ever Black-owned studio" — a title actually reserved for Black film director and independent producer Oscar Micheaux in the early 20th century (who Perry himself has been in talks to portray), although Perry is now the only Black-owned production facility in America. Throughout the grand opening, a caravan of Black Hollywood's finest descended on the red carpet and paid their dues accordingly. The celebration was the manifestation of the final words Perry offered in his Ultimate Icon speech: "While everybody was fighting for a seat at the table talking about #OscarsSoWhite, #OscarsSoWhite, I said, 'Y'all go ahead and do that, but while you're fighting for a seat at the table I'll go ahead and build my own.'"
There's a dangerous line, however, between conflating individual attainment with largesse, and it's a common failure with using Black Capitalism as a panacea for social ills. The proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats only works when everyone has a boat or is on the same one. But there are a variety of institutions across the board that work to maintain systemic inequities in all cross-sections of Black populations, and simply having Black visibility doesn't eradicate the concern. If you look at the singular issue of "providing a vast space for current Black actors who are struggling to get work to have a higher potential for film roles," then that's certainly an obstacle that Perry has probably reduced. In other parts of the entertainment industry, however, questions remain. Perry remains on the national "Do Not Work" list of the Actors Equity Association for consistently hiring non-union stage actors. In 2008, there was a public incident in his previous series, House of Payne, where several of his writers were fired while trying to negotiate new Writers Guild of America (WGA) union contracts prior to the show's syndication. The Writers Guild and Perry ended up coming to an agreement that same year.
"I feel like I was slapped in the face, like we were used," Teri Brown-Jackson, one of the writer's fired, said at the time. "We were good enough to create over a hundred episodes, but now when it comes to reaping the benefits of the show being syndicated and having other spin-offs from it, he decides to let us go unless we accept a horrible offer." (An attorney for Perry said that the writers were fired for "the quality of their work" at the time.)
This is doubly injurious when you consider Black America's long history of fighting and organizing for unions as a civil rights issue. In 2018, Tyler Perry was in headlines after a phone conversation between him, Mo'Nique and her husband surfaced. During their conversation, Perry acknowledged that she had been treated unfairly by the industry (she was called "difficult" after declining to travel to the Cannes film festival to promote Precious for free ahead of the 2009-10 awards season), and said that he would try to send the actress money earned from the movie too. This year, Mo'Nique revealed in an interview with Vulture that Perry had yet to do that.
"We had given Tyler Perry a year to keep his word. Brother, you said you were going to come out and say something. Well, you never came out and said anything," she said. "And what was disheartening was people who were saying, 'How could you tape him?' But, they weren't saying, 'Oh my God, did you hear what he said? He said she wasn't wrong.'"
And while many in Hollywood have disavowed filming in Georgia due to the recent “heartbeat” abortion laws — despite the generous 30% filming tax credit — Perry has declined, noting the investment he has made into the community superseding his disagreement with the legislation.
Given his disavowal, it was disappointing — but not surprising — to see Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (who signed the legislation into law) as one of the guests of honor at the studio's grand opening as a "welcoming gesture." A municipal undertaking of this magnitude is certainly not obtained without developing the skill to ingratiate oneself with politicians. As it currently stands, the perception remains within Georgia politics that Tyler Perry was able to obtain the acreage for the significantly discounted market price of $30 million, because of a strong working relationship with former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, as opposed to having the most robust case for revitalizing a district that has been impacted by the base closure. The film industry may create many opportunities for employment but that doesn't inherently guarantee a spike in local jobs in a network as insular as entertainment — especially one that is heavily predicated on temporary work, as critics argued while the land contract was being bid on. When the majority of your pipeline is presumed to be positioned in New York and Los Angeles, the question of how much community can be served with the remainder of your available resources is a valid one.
Parallel to the lot opening came the announcement of a lofty aim to open "a compound for trafficked women, girls, homeless women, [and] LGBTQ youth" — replete with daycares and apartments, and the ultimate goal of teaching the entertainment business and self-sufficiency. It is an admirable dream that is hard to substantively parse through without access to any finer points. In a fashion it feels like a silent mea culpa for all of the open criticism he has received over portrayals of all of these archetypes in his productions. That said, one wonders if a prerequisite or expectation of shelter is an interest in film or entertainment, and if he has the proper individual resources to support whatever approach he ultimately takes in building a philanthropic effort from the ground up.
The framework of Black excellence is such that it begets obligatory deference to the gilded class that have managed to successfully work their way through the labyrinth of racist systems and present them as not merely just celebrities to revere, but also pattern lives after. It's for this reason that critique — which many have defensively viewed as reactionary — is an essential tool in pushing past the sentiment and the optics to examine the entire playing field. The technique has been used by great Black essayists throughout the last two centuries. As literary critic Cheryl Wall writes in her book On Freedom and the Will to Adorn, "the dialogic form of the essay which strives to produce the effect of the spontaneous, the tentative, and the open-ended lends itself to exploring complex and contentious issues."
Tyler Perry is nothing if not complex and contentious. His legacy is one that will inevitably be acclaimed for his accumulation of immense capital. But nuance in the narrative lies in defining which Black community he is beholden to serving in his next era as an indisputable media mogul. The Black community in Hollywood and Atlanta/Fort McPherson, and the marginalized women and LGBTQ youth represent different thresholds and expectations for accountability and growth — some interests which may very well run counter to each other. And it is incumbent on Perry to decide which ones he will prioritize first.
Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based writer by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa who comments on culture, identity, and politics. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, NYMag, and The Root. You can follow her comings and goings on Twitter at @_Shamgod.