By Darius Dawson
It is not fair to call the dispute between Shelton “Spike” Lee and Tyler Perry a feud. The thing that African Americans, particularly young African Americans, fail to realize is the history behind African Americans in the cinema. Spike Lee is quoted as saying that “each artist should be allowed to pursue the artist endeavor. But I still think a lot of stuff on today is coonery buffoonery”, on the show World View. It is a popular belief that this was said in reference to Tyler Perry’s films, but in the interview Spike Lee never mentions Perry’s name. It is likely that he was referring to him and the media has helped fan the flames, however, it is important to look at both filmmakers’ points of view existentially.
Spike Lee is from the first wave of the film school generation. He grew up witnessing racial inequality, and him being one of the first black males doing serious pieces since Blaxplotation did not help. He had to struggle against the grain. He succeeded, however, and what he created when he succeeded were portraits of real life. He does this through his new wave cinematography and his hyper-stylized neo-realistic plots.
In his film, bamboozled, Lee touched on the absurdity of the Hip-Hop generation; something that he, in part, is a product of. There is an unspoken racism that perpetuates this cycle of negative black people being shown in the media, and blacks looking to get entertainment work go along with it. This basically covers the plot of the film and what the entertainment business is in reality. At the end of the film there is a montage of old films and cartoons such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Bugs Bunny out witting a big lipped and slow black Elmer Fudd, and babies dark as tar eating watermelons. These images are show in film classes and students analyze them based on aesthetics and cinematography, almost forgetting the hurtful content. This same thing happens today in contemporary film classes. Spike Lee is coming from an era, where he, fresh out of film school was one of the most influential filmmakers since the Blaxploitation period.
Tyler Perry’s story is equally as compelling. As a child he received very severe beatings from his father; so severe that he once attempted suicide to escape them. This accounts for his demonization of men as a recurring motif in many of his films. His mother would take him to church several times a week and this severed as a refuge away from his father. Perry also claims to have been molested by his friend’s moth as a child as well as three men.
Perry does not have any formal training; he dropped out of high school, but still earned his GED. He began writing letters to himself as self-therapy to cope with what he had been through in his life. He eventually moved to Atlanta where he got into stage producing. From there he went on to do films.
The aspect that makes Tyler Perry very relatable to the African American community is his use of religion. Religion is one of the most influential aspects in the African American community. The characters that surround Madea, Perry’s franchise tag are expressions of real people that he knows and wants to be shown.
The problem that arises when these two men clash is their understanding of film and history as it relates to black culture. The thing that drove the old segregationist film was keeping the black community separated and fighting each other. This occurs in “The Birth of a Nation” when the black delegates are fighting over chicken in the state senate.
Tyler Perry does promote stereotypes, advertently or inadvertently. He was the black buck, over-sexualized, violent, and typically evil. There is the jezebel, who is basically the black whore. There is also the Sammy and mammy figure. This is Madea and Joe’s characters. However, Madea seems to be the anti-mammy in a sense that she does not conform to the will of those around her. Spike Lee’s pitfall is that though he encourages the artistic endeavor in words he does not support what he says. Lee has had clashes with Clint Eastwood and Tyler Perry about what they include in their films. If it is their artistic vision, then they should be allowed to include what they want.
The key to both artists is to keep creating what they believe is right. Ticket and merchandise sales are not the goal. The goal is to create positive images of blacks on the screen in some way so that future generations of black filmmakers and entertainers can continue to find work in the business.