Welcome to Operation Reach B.L.A.C.K.

Operation Reach B.L.A.C.K. is a Pan-African Blog with an acronym that stands for Building Leadership Awareness and Cultural Knowledge.

The goal of this blog is to become a "Blog of Black Thought" focusing on matters of social, economic and political awareness through education (re-education), self-affirmation and cultural expression. Above all, this blog will DEMAND respect and appreciation for one another as black men and women.

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(Opinions, Observations, and Commentary)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Black Comedy and Why Madea Matters

Tyler Perrys Medea Goes To Jail New York Screening
Say the name "Tyler Perry" and you're likely to get a very passionate response. But depending on the columnist you may be surprised to find that not everyone is a fan. In fact, Mr. Perry's come under a lot of heat from accusations that he makes money through negative stereotypes of the black community. There is also the not-so-small concern over allegations that Mr. Perry might be anti-union (but that's not the focus of this post).

At times there seems to be little room for middle ground when discussing Perry. IF you're taking the time to actually write about the man, chances are you're probably going to take one of two approaches: Either 1.) Perry is the quintessential entrepreneur; or 2.) Perry's nothing more than a sell-out.

The entrepreneurial side is self-evident. Perry is the perfect rags-to-riches affirmation of the American Dream. Most reports tell of how Perry went from homelessness to being a multi-millionaire . . . head of his own entertainment empire in, not only African-American, but mainstream pop-culture. And how did he get there? One word: MADEA . . .

And that's where some get to the sell-out critique.

For some, Madea is a witty, comedic character familiar to most African-Americans in the tradition of Big Mama. To others, Madea is a social stereotype of black women: an angry, overweight and hostile woman with a diva attitude (well damn, now that you put it that way. . . ). Others say Madea is no more than a modern day Mammy.

And the criticism is not just limited to Madea. Rather some critics suggest that Perry's movies are overly simplistic and highly predictable; utilizing a plethora of black stereotypes from the trifling, no good abusive husband (see, Blair Underwood's character in Madea's Family Reunion) to the high-saddity, gold-digging wife (see, Sanaa Lathan's character in The Family that Preys). And if that weren't enough to drive his critics wild, there's always the occasional pimp and/or ho (which can both be found in Perry's latest, Madea Goes to Jail).

So, with all of that said, I should probably use this post to declare my disgust as well, right???


Sorry, but I just can't get too worked up over a Tyler Perry movie. As a matter of fact (GASP) I actually LIKE his movies. Yeah, I said it.

It's important to embrace ALL aspects of the our cultural experience. Doing so means allowing a space for both the serious and . . .. well, not so serious sides of the black experience. And yes, it includes black buffoonery as well. That's right . . . like any other race, we have the right to laugh at ourselves.

Columnist Ellen Sweets breaks it down:
Blacks marched, sat in and spoke out for the right to equality. That quest is only meaningful if accompanied by a willingness to accept the right of black artists to be as raucous, ridiculous and offbeat as anyone else. (Ellen Sweets, The Denver Post).

Sweets continues . . .
We are the race of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and the Tuskegee Airmen. Of President Barack Obama, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and television commentator Gwen Ifill. Of golfer Tiger Woods, tennis titans Venus and Serena Williams and of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the Harvard-trained astrophysicist and director of New York's Hayden Planetarium. Of Oprah, and of a bevy of scientists, educators and Fortune 500 corporate execs. The world knows we aren't a mass of "dese and dem," dope-smoking clowns.

And if they don't know that by now, it's because they don't want to know.

We need to get past our hypersensitivity to anything that fails to portray blacks as less-then-perfect. We've got to become more secure in who and what we are. (Ellen Sweets, The Denver Post)

I shared a similar sentiment in a recent conversation regarding comedian D.L. Hughley (e.g., D.L's "nappy-headed" joke and his short-lived show on CNN). A healthy dialogue must save room for us as black people to be able to laugh at ourselves. And that will never happen so long as we let external stereotypes (i.e., white perceptions) dictate black expression. In discussing the matter, I compared Hughley's situation to one of the most successful black comedy shows of all time.:

In Living Color had a skit for almost every type of black stereotype. In fact, I know a whole lot of black men and women that laughed their as*es off every time Jamie Foxx played Wanda.

For me, it's a matter of consistency. We assume to function by a set of unspoken rules of cultural ethics. Yet we have no problem making exceptions when we feel appropriate. And there are times when our words don't match our actions. So when we highlight one incident for rebuke, we run the risk of establishing a zero-tolerance code of ethics that most black folk are unable (and justifiably) unwilling to accept when it comes to black popular culture.

People are angry at D.L.'s "nappy-head" joke, but if Don Imus were to draw a sketch of his "nappy-headed ho" he'd probably draw a picture that fit the stereotype portrayed by such characters as Foxx' Wanda and/or Martin Lawrence's Shenene.

That's why it was so easy for Imus to flip the script back on the black community and divert attention away from himself and back onto black pathologies.

I'd say an overwhelming majority of black audiences laughed at those skits on In Living Color. And if it weren't for the fact that we constantly act in anticipation of white reaction, I believe most black men and women were happy enough to just laugh and have a good time . . . knowing that Wanda is a caricature and in no way representative of all black women . . . just as Damon Waynes' Wino was not representative of black men (even if we all might know one or two Wandas and Winos from our neighborhoods. LOL).

Well, suffice it to say . . . I'm willing to bet that a few of us know some Madeas in our families and communities as well.

Now, is this to say we shouldn't encourage an honest and respectful discussion about the implications (deliberate or otherwise) behind the Madea character? Absolutely not. I personally wouldn't go so far as to say people are being "hypersensitive." I can't walk a mile in each person's shoes and as such can't expect to fully understand that which truly offends someone else.

Just the same, I've often been disappointed when some dismiss the concerns of black men whenever a book or movie comes out that arguably puts us in an unfavorable light. I disagree with Sweets' column in that I happen to think that there are legitimate concerns of male-bashing whenever certain films (The Color Purple, Waiting to Exhale and, ironically enough, Tyler Perry's, Diary of a Mad Black Woman) risk making a habit out of hyperbole.

Still, we must get to a point where we embrace the less-than-perfect as itself having a valuable contribution to black expression. It's one of the reaons I strongly support our First Amendment right to free speech. It's also why I stop far shy of attacking the authors and directors of such works. I wouldn't denigrate anyone for finding inspiration in such films so long as they maintain a balanced view of life (e.g., it's ok to exhale so long as we don't take such as license to bash black men).

Likewise, I believe rap music also serves as a medium through which black men can "exhale" and vent their frustrations. But just as I cautioned the former, I would strongly argue that this right to expression is not unmitigated. The inherent value of such work ends wherever and whenever the constant and routine degradation of black women (the acceptance of hyperbole as habit) begins. We at least owe that much to each other as black men and women.

We HAVE TO STOP thinking in zero-sum terms as black men and women and start appreciating the fact that we can come together as adults and value each other's voices in shaping a more united community. Rather than fighting an either/or principle, we should be honest with ourselves to realize that life is complicated and dynamic enough to strive, not for censorship, but for BALANCE in the representations we see in media and popular culture.

It's all about balance. A positive film shouldn't require us to pretend that negative images and influences don't exist within the black community. On the contrary, a BALANCED, healthy approach would insist that a positive image be put in place to focus the message and make it clear that these negative portrayals are a small part of the black experience . . . a small part that is best understood in juxtaposition to the overall triumph of black men an women who come together to uplift and support each other.

There must be a way to respectfully communicate any, if not all concerns, without first reverting to very serious accusations of racism and misogyny. There must be a way for us to respectfully disagree without labeling one another as sexist or self-hating just because we might like to watch a movie that (however, predictable the plot may be) is a welcomed change from the less positive (if not more serious) roles of death, poverty and despair that we've grown accustomed to seeing.
Perry's audiences are vast and diverse. And let's not overlook the fact that a lot of his supporters are black women who don't see Madea as a negative image, but as a positive image of strength and security. I've never seen them as ignorant of life or self-hating . . . they're just trying to have a good time.

Finally, let's not forget that Perry's movies, for the most part, are comedies. They are there to make us laugh, not necessarily conduct a sociological or anthropological study. Ultimately, ask any patron why they go see a Tyler Perry movie and I'll bet the answer will be: I go to feel good.

Perry's Madea character is a modern-day, hip hop caricature of our beloved "Big Mama." And for as much as she may exhibit certain stereotypes, it would be disingenuous to argue that the sole effect of her character is to diminish or degrade black women.

I've yet to see someone seriously argue that Madea is representative of all black women. And to the extent that she is taken seriously, Madea is almost always depicted as a funny yet inspirational reminder of the strong black women in our lives. Madea may be a loud mouthed, gun-toting diva . . . but she's also the leader of her family and community. She's the solid rock of wisdom that all characters (male or female; black or white) ultimately turn to for advice and guidance. She's the matriarch that sees her family through the storms and isn't afraid to speak her mind while doing it.

That's the Madea that I and a lot of other black folk see when we go to the theater.

Plain and simple, Perry has struck box-office gold because he's tapped a vein of Black America that is left wanting far too often . . . the need to feel good. No matter how predictable or simplistic the plot may seem to some (and I must admit that this particular criticism strikes me as being highly elitist) it's important for us to maintain a space in our popular culture where we ultimately come together and grow as a people. If comedy is that vehicle . . . well, then so be it.

And regardless of the stereotypes, let's be honest with ourselves and admit that hyperbole is often a main ingredient to a good comedy. Sometimes a writer has to exaggerate the lows in order to make the highs that much more meaningful to the audience.

It's important for us as a black community to maintain that distinction between reality and hyperbole. Fact is that our community (just like ANY other) has its fair share of triflin' people. The test for us, however, is to understand that the villains in Perry's films are by no means representative of all black men or women. To his credit, I'd say Perry does a very good job at balancing things out in his films to show a reasonably fair portrayal of black people. For every gold digger there's an accomplished businesswoman; for every drug dealer or hustler there's a hard working black man who provides for his family. And regardless of social status or ambition, for every black man or woman who's turned his or her back on the community, there is ALWAYS a strong brotha or sista working hard to give back.

Let's not pretend that every negative image in a Perry film doesn't have a counter-portrayal of something POSITIVE within the black community. Why not focus on that? I don't care how predictable or cheesy you might think the plot is . . . I'm more than happy to invest 7-10 dollars of my money to see a film where black folks come together to work their problems out for themselves. You can never get enough of a positive message, especially if you get to laugh while doing it.

Now, if someone comes along with a more "sophisticated" (or so they think) plot, I'll be more than happy to support them as well. But, for now I know a lot of highly educated, sophisticated black men and women who enjoy Perry's films.




Video: Perspective Piece