Is Madea a Minstrel Show?

By Todd A. Smith

            Tyler Perry films and television shows have revolutionized Black entertainment.  Characters like the gun-toting granny Madea, played by Perry, and the fun-loving Mr. Brown, played by David Mann, have combined comic relief and a conscience that has translated into box office gold.  However, many Black thespians, such as Terrence Howard and most recently Spike Lee, have criticized Tyler Perry films as being demeaning to Blacks in ways not seen since the days of blackface makeup.

             “Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors but I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is ‘coonery’ and buffoonery,” said Lee in an interview with Ed Gordon for “Our World with Black Enterprise.” 

“I know it’s making a lot of money and breaking records, but we can do better…I am a huge basketball fan, and when I watch games on TNT, I see these two ads for (‘Meet the Browns’ and ‘House of Payne’) and I am scratching my head…We got a Black president and (we’re) going back to Mantan Moreland and Sleep ‘n’ Eat?”

            Despite the enormous criticism that he sometimes receives, Tyler Perry films, sitcoms and plays are successful because they bring a much-needed element back to Black entertainment, and that is morals.  There were times when one could watch shows like “Good Times” or “The Cosby Show” and not only be entertainment, but come away with a life lesson, and that is what Tyler Perry films and television shows bring to the table.

            Perry is not afraid to tackle such prevalent issues as teen pregnancy, rape, adultery and drug abuse, in a way that will make you laugh and think.  His characters are often highly educated from affluent backgrounds, a segment of Black society that was largely ignored by Hollywood for years.  Nevertheless, many in the Black community are offended by anything comedic that comes out of Black Hollywood.

            “When John Singleton [made ‘Boyz N the Hood’], people came out to see it.  But when he did ‘Rosewood,’ nobody showed up,” Lee added.  “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.’”

            Although I consider Lee the godfather of Black cinema for classic films such “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” Lee and other critics of Tyler Perry films must realize that art imitates life and no matter how much they disapprove, characters like Madea and Brown are very realistic in the Black community, and many Black families probably have a relative or two that are similar to Perry’s two most famous characters.

            Furthermore, when people go to the movies or watch television they are usually looking for an escape from harsh realities of the world and sometimes just want to be entertained at the movies and not given a history lesson.  That is the reason why a movie such as “Boyz N the Hood” was much more profitable for Singleton than “Rosewood.”

            Tyler Perry films also reach out to the Christian population who for years did not have many films or television shows that could be enjoyed by the entire family, regardless of age. 

            Black critics and activists must realize that, like Lee stated, we are not a monolithic group.  Many criticized “Good Times,” because it focused on a Black family struggling in the projects but it was reality because many Blacks are in that situation.  An equal amount of people criticized “The Cosby Show,” because the family was affluent, but it was realistic as well because many Black families are upper-middle-class.

            Tyler Perry films and sitcoms are the latest to face such criticism, but those criticizing him should get a reality check, because although many issues in the Black community are serious, it is not the end of the world if Blacks take a break from those grim realities of life and enjoy a laugh or two.


Smith is publisher of Regal Black Men’s Magazine.

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