There has been an ongoing argument in the black community regarding the main character in Tyler Perry’s franchise of films – projects that are released on an almost (if not actually) yearly basis. Namely…Madea. This conversation or debate is not new though – because it’s tied to a larger context and discussion that black people have been having for years as we consider one dynamic or another in society directly related to people of African descent. The question we grapple with on a regular basis is this: Does one action or another that we randomly encounter or witness push back against the fight for equality?
Madea – who is played by a “cross-dressed” Perry – is a humorous (to some anyway) – cantankerous – high-strung – “don’t take-no-mess-from-nobody” – but at the end of the day loving…character. After all, in the black community the “nickname” Madea is a derivative of “My Dear”, which obviously connotes endearment. And it’s worth noting that the Madea character is the basis for what has by now become an indisputable empire for Tyler Perry – dating back to the days when Madea debuted on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” before sold-out audiences. Now, the argument in barbershops – on black entertainment shows and panels – and at dinner tables in black households everywhere is over whether or not Perry is taking Black America several steps backwards with what is essentially a caricature – a caricature that quite possibly may feed the seemingly insatiable beast that is “the strereotype of black people”?
Is Madea merely entertainment or is Tyler Perry “cooning”? Is it art or is it exploitation? Perry has often argued in his own defense that: Madea and the other stereotypical characters that accompany her during her various escapades are all in good fun – they are disarming – and more importantly that each film always has a positive message to be extracted by the viewer. His detractors, however, counter that those positive messages are lost in the bafoonery of a modern day minstrel show that reinforces and legitimizes the ignorance of our oppressors past and present; an oppression that led directly to the social misery experienced during slavery – jim crowe and that even lives on to this day via crooked public policies – mass incarceration and the like.
This is a tough one for me honestly. I understand both sides of this cinematic disagreement. On the one hand – anyone who doesn’t know by now that Madea does not represent a depiction of Black America is living in Allison Wonderland. And Perry does in fact inject positive messages into his films and has also produced films (sans Madea) that feature black characters as doctors, lawyers, and so on – which despite popular public opinion is not an imaginary scenario. BUT, on the other hand, I am concerned about a general “black public” lining the streets of America to behold the gun toting grandma with a mean right hook. Makes me wonder what Black America thinks of ourselves to a degree, comedy or not. And although I think that most of America does not buy into Madea as a representative of Black America, I do wonder if there is not what I call a Madea Effect – existing in America – generally speaking.
I remember when I used to work for IBM, I’d jump out to lunch from time to time with various co-workers. Well this one gentlemen (happened to be white) whom I’d only recently met at that time came by my desk one day and asked if I wanted to hit up this pizza spot he knew about – I agreed and we were on our way. We jumped in his car and I kid you not – this dude searched his radio dial as he eye-balled me until he landed on an urban station and with a sort of smirk on his face was like: “I bet you like that music huh??” and then did an exaggerated head bob as he said something to the effect of “yo yo yo”, in a playful manner, trying to make me laugh I guess. I responded politely: “my friend that’s enough” (paraphrasing). He was the nicest guy you’d ever meet – good people and completely harmless as I came to see over time. BUT, I had to check him – both on principle – and because if he tried that with the wrong person they might not be so understanding as I. (I’m also mad thinking back on it because I did like the music he was playing though! Haha!)
I share this because I do feel that much of America – many who live in isolated areas where they only see black people on TV – does buy into unflattering and asinine stereotypes…believing Black America to be monolithic. They might not necessarily (though they might!) buy into Madea as a representation of all things black, but when a rapper like Young Thug or Trinidad James gets up on the TV screen sporting a gold grill along with eighteen gold chains around his (their) neck – might that not have the Madea Effect? The “Madea Effect” by the way – according to a definition of my own making – paints an exaggerated and over the top picture of the black experience – which becomes a caricature – that then becomes emblematic for the rest of America regarding who we are as a race. And if this “effect” actually exists it’s no wonder then that we hear “sage” advice from people outside our community about how we need to pull up our pants – get off welfare – take care of our children – find a job – stop spending all our money on car rims and jewelry. That’s all they see on TV!!
@ all of the above I want to quickly quote – only in part – lines from a scene in which Robin Williams who offered up a brilliant portrayal of “Dr. Sean Maguire” – addresses the main character “Will” in the film Good Will Hunting:
“I look at you; I don’t see an intelligent, confident man; I see a cocky, scared sh&@ess kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine and you ripped my f@&$n’ life apart. You’re an orphan right? Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?”
My point: the rappers or athletes – or the backwards characters portrayed in tv/film/music – or the “welfare queen” depicted on Fox News do not encapsulate who black people are as a people. However, and rather unfortunately, some people just cannot seem to see past what they read somewhere in a book or newspaper. They cannot move past what their drunk uncle tells them about black people as he gobbles (no pun intended) a turkey melt at Thanksgiving. And so in light of that the question is: Are some black folks by their actions helping to bolster the “Sambo” image imprinted on the psyche of “Joe Public”? It really shouldn’t be Trinidad James’s responsibility to remedy that problem anymore than it should be rapper “Rif-Raff’s” (click here for photo) for white people. But unfortunately I think it is at the moment. It’s not fair but it’s true.
I am not saying that Black America needs to impress White America or anybody else. In fact, that should not be our goal at all. Our goal should be, however, to overcome by any means necessary the obstacles placed in front of our community at nearly every turn from day one by a systemically racist apparatus. And if that means we have to be careful not to aid in the construction of stereotypes and in fact should work to deconstruct stereotypes – shouldn’t we pay attention to what our actions inspire? We do not do it to placate the self-righteous misgivings of other races but to overcome them. It’s deep. It’s a topic worth discussing and if you are Tyler Perry it’s one worth contemplating when you write your next script. I don’t have all the answers, but I may just have all the questions.
Oreos to go: Don’t believe everything you see on TV!
More than a blog. It’s a movement.
Though there is much more that could be said, I will have to stop for now. But hopefully you will continue the conversation in your living rooms, at your places of worship, and even with that person of another race you just met as you were walking down the street in your neighborhood.
And also I do have what I think is another interesting plate of cookies on a platter for next Monday (you can share via social media buttons below), when I hope you will join me again to talk some more oreos.