Movie Buffs Weigh In on Tyler Perry and Spike Lee Feud

By Natalie Goode-Henry

Spike Lee and Tyler Perry have returned to their respective film houses and the second wave of their two-year feud has abated…for now. The debate over which Black filmmaker best captures the African American experience in cinema still rages on among movie buffs.

Nakeema, 39, a consultant in the healthcare industry, saw three Perry films (The Family That Preys, Daddy’s Little Girls, and For Colored Girls) and believes his filmmaking ability is limited by his narrow scope.

“There is a real sameness and repetitiveness that attaches to all of [Perry’s] films, very stereotypical formula: women downtrodden, women who are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders find redemption in the Lord.”

Comedy mixed with religion and morals is the recipe that has pegged Perry the box office king or queen if you count the films that feature his most popular character; pistol-toting, sharp-tongued southern matriarch Madea, who has amassed a following with her “whup” you into shape attitude and off-the-cuff advice.  

April Cartwright-Miller, from Nassau, Bahamas, describes the movies’ appeal in a comment on Perry’s website, “I couldn’t choose which movie to comment on because I love them all. Although they are funny (Madea is always so funny) they always bring home some strong messages and in many cases leave me re-examining my life, but more importantly you always, always acknowledge the most high God in some form.”

While Perry being in drag has lessened the blow of witnessing characters cope with domestic violence and child abuse issues—which are frequently depicted in his movies—the images have raised red flags with critics, and are at the root of the Spike Lee and Tyler Perry feud.

The spat originated when Lee described Perry’s portrayal of Black characters as “coonery buffoonery,” adding that the “imagery is troubling” in an interview with Ed Gordon at the Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference in 2009. Perry responded in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview saying, “All these characters are bait-disarming, charming, make you laugh bait. I can slap Madea on something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family, any of those.”

Since then moviegoers’ reactions to the dispute have ranged from Perry’s body of work reinforcing stereotypes that are in the rearview of Black movie history, to claims of Lee being envious of Perry’s success at the box office.

“Professional jealousy…I doubt it,” says Shawn Edwards, film critic and creator of “Technically, Spike has more commercial success because of Inside Man; domestically it grossed $88 million and $95 million worldwide. Tyler Perry makes zero dollars globally, so Lee blows him out of the water.”  

According to Box Office Mojo, a box office reporting website, Perry’s movies do have a worldwide presence; the Why Did I Get Married series was one of his top movies overseas grossing a little over $1 million dollars when shown in South Africa. However, Lee’s ability to diversify with feature films and documentaries is what appeals to some movie aficionados.

“When I left [after watching] When the Levees Broke I was encouraged,” says Nakeema. “Who else would have done this? Had the conviction to get these viewpoints and get it ready for a cable vision. [Lee] has the means and skill set.”

Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are two filmmakers who are passionate about giving a voice to the Black community even though they may diverge on the message.

Edwards believes there is room in Hollywood for both perspectives; citing Perry for his ability to “focus on great messages,” which were seen in I Can Do Bad All by Myself and For Colored Girls, which was adapted from a stage play into a screenplay. He lauds Lee for his body of work that includes She’s Gotta Have It, which he commends for “the depth he brought out [of that movie] far outweighs what Tyler Perry has done.”

“Sometimes you want to see a light-hearted dumb comedy like Perry’s,” he adds. “The key is in the world of Black film, we need balance.”

However, Spike Lee and Tyler Perry’s two perspectives may have the opportunity to converge.

Perry was a guest on Monique’s talk show and discussed ending their rivalry by coming together. He said, “Instead of taking shots, tearing each other down how about you give me a hand brother and tell me what I need to know and maybe I can share some things with you too.” Monique followed suit by offering Lee an open invitation to come on her show so the two filmmakers could air out their differences.

Nakeema believes that the Spike Lee and Tyler Perry filmmaking power can be better served by guiding young ingénues to develop their message in film.

“What about the [filmmakers] who have other visions [that differ from Perry and Lee] who don’t have a voice. They can develop their message.”

Goode-Henry is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine, a publication dedicated to the African American community.

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