‘While you’re fighting for a seat at the table, I’ll be down in Atlanta building my own,’ were just some of the powerful words spoken by Tyler Perry at the BET Awards in June, where he was honoured with the ultimate icon award as a commeration for his dedicated commitment to Black Hollywood and theatre… a career that spans across the course of three decades.
His words were powerful then but they hit even harder now.
Perry has just celebrated the grand opening of his 330-acre filming complex in the Fort McPherson area of Atlanta, that is reportedly larger than the likes of Paramount, Warner Bros, Disney and co. The studio contains 12 sound stages named after iconic black artistes, including, but not limited to the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Sidney Poitier, Will Smith, and Halley Berry.
The opening was a grand affair attended by much of Black Hollywood and political figures such as the Clintons. Sadly, the Obamas were noticeably absent.
Perry first commissioned the lot in 2015 after purchasing it for $30 million, although it has been reported that he has since invested a further $250 million into the development of the land.
The studio is already in operation after being used to develop projects such as Marvel’s Black Panther, Pitch Perfect 3, and many of Perry’s projects such as The Haves and the Have Nots. But for Perry, this is just the beginning as he has even bigger plans in place for the lot. He revealed that he wants to include a six-lane highway running along the entire back of the property that could be used for filming. He also wants to build a backlot and restaurants, whilst also eventually holding tours for the members of the public.
“I want this to be a self-sustaining place where companies can come here and they don’t have to leave,” he says.
Most recently, he has unveiled plans to add a shelter for trafficking victims, homeless women and displaced LGBTQ youth to his 330-acre film studio in Atlanta.
Perhaps, more significantly, it has been built on a site that served as a Confederate army base during the American Civil War, which he also touched upon during his BET speech.
“That studio was once a confederate army base,” he said during his speech, “which means that there was Confederate soldiers on that base plotting and planning on how to keep 3.9 million Negroes enslaved. Now that land is owned by one Negro.”
The significance of Perry’s sole ownership is something that news outlets have led most of their pieces with, highlighting the historical achievement of having the ‘first-ever Black-owned studio.’ But this is a misconception.
As a matter of fact, this is an achievement that belongs to Oscar Micheaux who has been heralded as ‘The Godfather of Black film.’ Micheaux formed his own movie production company and in 1919 became the first African-American to make a film.
His achievements didn’t stop there though. He also became the first African-American to produce a film to be shown in “white” movie theaters. Considering the racial divide that underpinned America at the time, it is remarkable what Michaeux was able to achieve. So one could argue that his efforts paved the way for Tyler who was reported to be playing the film-maker in an upcoming biopic by Variety, back in 2017.
Additionally, in 1997, Tim Reid and his wife Daphne Maxwell Reid founded New Millenium Studios, a sixty-acre studio in Virginia. The couple sold it for $1.5 million in 2015.
It is this omission that publications need to be careful with when tackling cultural milestones such as this. Time and time again, I have seen media outlets lead their articles with a talking point that has not been thoroughly checked or backed up against historical facts. Whilst, it is important to highlight the significance of Perry’s achievement, we must also give credit to those that came before him, to not do so eradicates the efforts of our ancestors and gives power to the institutional structures that have facilitated the erasure of Black creatives.
Over the years, Tyler has faced criticism from the Black community, as well as Hollywood who have accused him of portraying negative tropes and stereotypes of Black women in his movies. Perhaps, most notably in reference to his iconic character Madea, who has long been played by Perry.
It isn’t hard to see why the character has drawn criticism, the Southern grandma is known for her abrasive nature and penchant for abusive behaviour, with many of her films focusing on stereotypical issues that affect the Black community such as absentee fathers, domestic violence and religion. Whilst, these are all important topics that vehemently need to be discussed in the community, it begs the question if there are other narratives that are being ignored, in exchange for creating a franchise that profits off the ideal of the ‘angry Black woman.’
One of the most prolific critiques comes from renowned director Spike Lee who has accused Perry of creating ‘coonery buffoonery‘, which Tyler refuted in a 2011 news conference declaring ‘Spike can go straight to hell. You can print that, he said. ‘I am sick of him talking about me. … I am sick of him talking about black people going to see movies.’ It should be noted that the pair have since made up, with Perry naming one of his twelve stages after him, drawing upon Lee’s achievements and contributions to the community.
However, the character of Madea means something to Tyler and was based on his mother and aunt, who he has frequently given credit to throughout his career.
“The nurturing part of Madea comes from my mother, who would open the doors of our home to you no matter who you were,” he told the magazine. “My aunt inspired the pistol-packing, the wig and the voice. She overpronounces her words and puts an r on everything to make it sound proper.”
Then there is the further controversy around his anti-union beliefs and treatment of writers. After the TV success of his show House of Payne, Perry signed a lucrative deal to launch its spin-off Meet The Browns. However, he came under fire when Deadline reported that he fired four writers after they requested union contracts. This led to the Writers Guild of America launching an investigation whereby they charged Perry’s production company with “unfair labor practice” and bargaining in “bad faith.”
“I feel like I was slapped in the face, like we were used,” writer Teri Brown-Jackson told Deadline. “We were good enough to create over a hundred episodes, but now when it comes to reaping the benefits of the show being syndicated and having other spin-offs from it, he decides to let us go unless we accept a horrible offer.”
Then there are the allegations against him that he blackballed Monique in the acting world after it emerged that the comedian refused to travel internationally to promote the 2009 hit film Precious since she would not have been compensated. She claims that she was only paid $50,000 for her work in the film. After leaking a private conversation between herself, Perry and her husband it was revealed that the director had promised to get her the money owed from Precious.
Yet, in an interview with Vulture this year, Monique revealed that she is still waiting.
“Here’s the thing: he’s never done it,” Mo’Nique said. “We had given Tyler Perry a year to keep his word. Brother, you said you were going to come out and say something. Well, you never came out and said anything. And what was disheartening was people who were saying, ‘How could you tape him?’ But, they weren’t saying, ‘Oh my God, did you hear what he said? He said she wasn’t wrong.’” She continued, saying, “We didn’t accept any money.”
And perhaps this is something we should also be focusing on, because pointing out that he is somewhat problematic does not negate all the positive he has done for the community, it just allows for some nuance.
It is also important to understand that whilst Perry has been relatively successful in his career, his story is one tale amidst hundreds of hundreds of Black creatives that are still struggling to have their voices heard in the industry. Whilst he may have benefited from the capitalist structure that was built off the backs of the underclass, there are still many suffering under it.
However, we must give credit where it’s due and the director definitely deserves it. He has helped launch the careers of many stars we have come to love such as Taraji P Henson, China Ann Mcclain, Idris Elba and Lance Gross. He produced the 2009 Oscar nomination movie Precious, and has just signed a groundbreaking deal with BET to launch a streaming service that will rival the likes of Netflix and upcoming Apple Plus.
So what’s next for the 50-year-old trailblazer? Well, he has an array of new shows set to be released this month such as Sistas which is set to follow a group of single Black females from different walks of life who bond over being single. Then there is The Oval which will be a Soap Opera following the new first family moving into the White House. He has also expressed an interest in developing his 1995 play about a jazz singer and holocaust survivor titled A Jazz Man’s Blues.
Tyler Perry may have his flaws but one thing is clear, he will leave behind a lasting legacy for years to come.
Featured image via Instagram