Monday, December 10, 2012

A Tyler Perry academic conference applies highbrow criticism to a lowbrow empire

Sometimes the secret purpose of academic conferences, roundtables, and symposia seems to be to make whatever subject they’re covering more substantive than it actually is. That particularly applies to academic conferences devoted to seeming pop ephemera, like last year’s University Of Chicago academic conference concerning The Jersey Shore. Part of my attraction to Northwestern University’s Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable (subtitle: “Perspectives On The Media Of Tyler Perry”) lies in the seeming incongruity of devoting sober academic analysis to films about a weed-smoking, sass-talking, whupping-delivering old woman played by a man in drag. But it would be a mistake to assume that just because Tyler Perry traffics in lowbrow entertainment that his oeuvre is not worthy of serious criticism or scholarship. 
Perry, after all, isn’t just the dominant black commercial filmmaker of our time; he’s the dominant black commercial filmmaker of all time, a one-man industry whose uncanny gift for discerning the emotional needs of his audience has made him a billionaire. Perry has cracked the code of commercial filmmaking like no filmmaker before him, black or white. In 2011, Forbes listed Perry as the highest-paid man in entertainment, having made $130 million in a single year. Perry has figured out a way to crank out modestly budgeted, almost invariably successful films, television shows, and plays at a pace no one else can match. Perry matters. His films matter. His aesthetic matters. His work has radically changed the landscape of black film. But is that a positive or negative development? 
By virtue of being an academic conference, Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable featured the liberal use of thousand-dollar terms like “hetero-normative,” but the word that reappeared the most was “ambivalence.” The passionate, invested black academics of the conference approached Perry’s fame, work, and cultural significance with profound ambivalence, particularly regarding his extraordinarily problematic treatment of gender. The women in Perry’s films read like a who’s-who of leading black actresses and cultural icons: Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Taraji P. Henson, Jill Scott, Sanaa Lathan, Alfre Woodard, and Gabrielle Union. He regularly gives meaty roles to gifted black actresses, but it comes at a steep cost. While it’s great that a popular and prolific filmmaker casts strong black women in lead roles, it’s also unfortunate, many at the conference held, that those high-profile roles invariably center films whose sexual politics remain stuck in the distant past.
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