Why Tyler Perry Earns the Title of Hollywood’s Last Auteur

It's easy to pick his films apart – but it's what holds them together that matters.

February 28, 2019 5:00 am
Tyler Perry at the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on February 24, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Getty Images)
Tyler Perry at the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on February 24, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Getty Images)
Getty Images

Tyler Perry, the producer, writer, director and star, is the critical elephant in the room as Hollywood elites discuss diversity. With Tyler Perry’s A Madea Family Funeral opening Friday in 2,350 theaters from coast to coast, his auteur career is far from finished – but the industry continues to bury him in an un-remarked grave.

Consider the sheer numbers of his output. Perry, 49, who also owns his own Atlanta-based studio, has produced 15 films with Lionsgate since 2005, starting with the 103-minute crowd-pleaser Diary of a Mad Black Woman. He has directed 21 features, written 15 and played the lead in 12.

The disconnect between audiences receptive to Perry’s mouthy cross-dressing matriarch who tells it like she sees it and his critical assessment is stark. His Rotten Tomatoes score for that first 2005 Madea outing was 16 percent rotten from 114 reviewers and, among audience members, 86 percent liked it.

“Perry doesn’t have any delusions of artistry, and potentially, at least, that’s refreshing,” said Stephanie Zacharek, who was then at Salon and now at Time. “But any points he earns for lack of pretense are immediately gobbled up by his lack of subtlety.”

Chiming in, the New York Post‘s Lou Lumenick was more succinct: “stay clear of this mess.”

Messy? Yes. But a profitable mess.

Since Madea’s feature debut, movies that Perry directed have grossed nearly a $1B nationally – with hardly a ripple in the global box office. He ranks 49 in the list of top-grossing directors at the domestic box office, and 92 in the top grossing domestic screenwriters. The average take of his sprawling comedies is $45M.  

In 2011, Forbes Magazine ranked Perry the highest paid man in entertainment. Wow.

Over a decade ago, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, earned a cool $50.6 M despite opening eighth in theaters. In 2016, Boo! A Madea Halloween opened at number 2 and went on to gross $73M.

Reviews for the latter were a snark-fest, including this backhanded compliment from Jesse Hassenger at the AV Club: “Madea remains a distinctive, weirdly compelling character. Maybe someday Perry will make a good comedy for her.”

Perry has never won an Oscar but he did pick up a 2018 Razzie for worst actress in Boo 2! A Madea Halloween. He won some respite in 2019 from the group for his small role as Colin Powell in Academy darling Adam Mckay’s Vice, for which he earned the Redeemer Award.

So, he’s redeemed when he appears very low on the cast list in a white Oscar film – but not when he’s the lead in his own wacky yet popular movies. And, not only has he created a space where he can control his output by wearing many hats, he’s cast a number of African American leads when there were few opportunities available in mainstream films.

Starting with Perry’s first Madea outing, Kimberly Elise had a starring role with her own plot arc. He has cast a string of leading ladies including Angela Bassett, Gabrielle Union, Jurnee Smollett, Brandy, Viola Davis, Tasha Smith, Thandie Newton, Alfre Woodard, Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson and Jill Scott, among many others. He built movies that were not only inclusive but empowering, creating opportunities and showcases for actresses that would go on to win Oscars.

Among actors, potential future 007 Idris Elba was a Perry star, as well as Blair Underwood, Louis Gossett Jr, Shemar Moore, Malik Yoba and Michael J. White.

From a storytelling standpoint, Perry’s movies seesaw from comedy to tragedy, cross-dressing farce to PG-13 romance and from melodramatic to evangelical. They’re not subtle. They shouldn’t work but the audiences that continue to attend Perry’s films and talk back to the screen in a communal call-and-response are beyond the sphere of the critics.

It’s easy to pick Perry’s films apart – but what holds them together? That’s something the industry needs to assimilate because Perry has planted his flag on a profitable shore of popular culture.

Hollywood is only belatedly, reluctantly recognizing the diversity of its audience — and only if it conforms to their preexisting notion of what defines Culture.

However, to quote Madea, “Mama don’t play.” Will Perry conform? Hell no! With this level of consistent success, the guy is doing something right in a major way. With a 16 score on RT, somebody’s missing the point – and it’s not Perry.

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