So, Spike finally got under Perry’s skin, or at least Perry couldn’t hold back any longer. Today Perry told reporters that Spike can “go straight to hell!” Pretty strong stuff for a spiritual guy like Perry.
My instincts, informed by working in poli-tricks and journalism, makes me think his outburst is a little too well timed, given that he’s on a press junket with a movie to come out. It’s the only way a smart businessman like Perry stands to gain from such a statement.
Of course the invective is the pull-quote, but Perry has gone on to explain further, arguing that the dispute between he and Lee is another example of Black people battling like crabs in a barrel, and – in a shocking expression of ignorance of other ethnics in the media controversy – that no other ethnicities have these kinds of squabbles (he also compared himself to W.E.B. Du Bois, but we’ll let that one slide for now).
Let’s take a step back and look at what Spike actually said to set off the debate in a 2009 interview with Black Enterprise magazine.
“We’ve had this discussion back and forth. When John Singleton [made Boyz in the Hood], people came out to see it. But when he did ‘Rosewood,’ nobody showed up. So a lot of this is on us! You vote with your pocketbook, your wallet. You vote with your time sitting in front of the idiot box, and [Tyler Perry] has a huge audience. We shouldn’t think that Tyler Perry is going to make the same film that I am going to make, or that John Singleton or my cousin Malcolm Lee [would make]. As African-Americans, we’re not one monolithic group, so there is room for all of that. But at the same time, for me, the imaging is troubling and it harkens back to ‘Amos n’ Andy.’”
It sounds like a reasonable, respectful observation, with Spike expressing an opinion that he isn’t alone in holding. Read what a regular movie goer said when speaking about Perry to The Denver Post:
“I wonder about intentionality,” began another woman sitting in a circle of 45 attendees. “I don’t know, for instance, what Tyler Perry is thinking when he’s portraying Madea. But one thing I think is that there has been this presence that has been very influential in his life — African-American women that have been strong, positive and quite humorous.
“And I think he’s taken that to a level that may ultimately undermine the very richness of what he got from the culture.”
More nuanced than Spike, but without the director’s gift for pithiness.
The debate about media representations of African-Americans by African-Americans has been going on long before Perry put on fake breasts. Aside from being concerned about Amos ‘n Andy, Black folks have been debating for years about ‘hood movies, Blaxploitation, and various subgenres of rap, just ticking off a few. While Perry clearly recognizes this given his comparisons of his feud with Lee to that between Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, he doesn’t seem to get it.
DuBois thought art by Negroes should serve to uplift the race; art as propaganda. Lee and Perry both seem ambivalent about the idea judging from their comments, though Lee leans DuBois’ way. Perry sees his art as a more populist version of uplift, in which he enlightens by beaming feel-good melodramas to the masses. If the means to that end call for broad humor and sassy drag, so be it. Whatever works.
Neither way is “right” or “wrong” as they are philosophies of art. Then the proper response is not “go to hell” or “stop complaining since I’m making money,” but “maybe Spike and his message could reach more people by making movies that more people want to see, laugh a little.”
Some think the disagreement between the two auteur is counterproductive. I don’t. It’s healthy. Perry’s feelings may be hurt, but neither he nor his bank account will be any poorer. Lee’s point – his main point – that ultimately the kinds of Black experiences we see on screen are largely determined by what kinds of films we pay to see, will be advanced. The decades old discussion will continue.