God, Hollywood, and Tyler Perry

Tyler Perry
Tyler Perry at the 82nd Academy Awards (Sgt. Michael Connors, Public Domain)

First, a disclaimer: I have not seen any of Tyler Perrys movies or TV shows. Therefore, it’s impossible for me to give any sort of assessment of his work. But I do want to make a few comments and observations about Roland S. Martin’s article ​“Hollywood and God can co-exist” in which he celebrates Perry’s films — specifically, Perry’s latest, I Can Do Bad All by Myself — while excoriating Hollywood for its treatment of religion (i.e., Christianity) and for ignoring religious moviegoers.

I agree with some of Martin’s statements concerning Hollywood and its view of religion. Like him, I get tired of the religious stereotypes found in movies and TV. Over the years, I’ve developed an innate skepticism that a religious character will be treated as anything other than a caricature and I often find myself cringing whenever a priest or pastor shows up on screen.

Case in point: A recent episode of Psych dealt with a death at a Catholic school and even threw in an exorcism for good measure. Naturally, one of the episode’s main characters was a older, devout Catholic priest, and as soon as he appeared onscreen, I braced myself for the eventual revelation of his sordid activities.

The episode turned out differently than I expected, but I think it’s telling that a Catholic priest appearing onscreen immediately had my ​“Spidey sense” a-tingling. That I was suddenly preparing for the worst possible revelations about a character simply because he was a man of the cloth is something I find a little sad. And yet, how often is it when a religious character, especially a man of the cloth, isn’t portrayed as naïve, crazy, deranged, bigoted, and/​or perverted?

Having said all that, I do find some of Martin’s other claims and statements a little confusing, if not dubious.

This particular statement immediately jumped out at me, and it strikes me as one of the article’s dominant themes:

What the critics hate about Tyler Perry’s films is what I appreciate: a willingness to tell stories about love, redemption, family and God and do so in an entertaining way. He is an unapologetic Christian.

Do critics really hate Perry’s films? I Can Do Bad All by Myself currently has a score of 64% at Rotten Tomatoes (which is considered ​“Fresh”) and a score of 55 at Metacritic. True, these aren’t fantastic scores but they’re a far cry from the critical drubbing that other recent films have received. (I Can Do Bad All by Myself is Perry’s highest rated movie on either site, for the record.)

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say critics really do hate Perry’s films. Do they hate them because they display ​“a willingness to tell stories about love, redemption, family and God and do so in an entertaining way”? A quick perusal of the film’s negative reviews seems to indicate that critics don’t dislike Perry’s film because he talks about ​“love, redemption, family and God.” Rather, they dislike his films because he talks about those things in a clichéd, hackneyed, and formulaic manner.

I found some reviews that specifically mention the ​“Jesus” aspect of Perry’s film, such as Ken Hanke’s and Alonso Duralde’s. But again, I don’t feel these critics are complaining about the ​“Jesus” aspect of Perry’s film per se, but rather, about the way in which that aspect is used. Hanke’s review begins this way:

For the first eight to 10 minutes of Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself I sat in shocked wonder. It appeared that Perry had at last made a good, cinematic movie. The photography was excellent, the setup was smooth and entertaining, the editing was sharp and on the money. The premise and tone of the movie were established with an economy that was pure joy. Unfortunately, the plot set in at this point and we were right back where we’ve always been with Perry: a slab of low-brow comedy, a chunk of hoary melodrama, and good actors (Taraji P. Henson deserves better than this) wasted on an inane story that lurches around for nearly two hours before concluding that all its heroine needed all along was a good (and hunky) man and Jesus.

Now for what it’s worth, the critics do find positive things to say about the movie and express hope that Perry is improving as a filmmaker, which makes it even more difficult for me to attach the word ​“hate” to their reviews. Again, from Hanke’s review (emphasis Hanke’s):

[T]he film — which is technically a musical (using the rule of thumb of four songs or more) — boasts at least one dynamite musical number when Mary J. Blige performs the title song. It’s not just that the song is good and she’s terrific, but it’s intelligently presented and intercut with the plot so that — unlike with several of the other songs — the movie doesn’t just stop dead. It’s yet another flicker of the filmmaker Perry could be.

Earlier in his article, Martin writes:

Many critics pan his films, complaining that they are all the same, the storytelling comes up short and character development is weak, and it’s wrong for him as a man to keep playing a large and loud grandmother.

Those are common critical assessments of Perry’s films, at least in the reviews that I saw, and if you disagree with them, that’s one thing. But it strikes me as quite another to say that such assessments mean those same critics hate Perry’s films because they talk about ​“love, redemption, family and God.”

Interestingly, the strongest anti-religious sentiment that I found was actually in a fairly positive review written by Prairie Miller. After mentioning some of the movie’s positive lessons, Miller concludes with this statement (emphasis mine):

While these not always subtle messages about human connectedness and individual self-worth are best when secularized, they do get nicely channeled intermittently through the uplifting musical impressions of [Mary J.] Blige and especially [Gladys] Knight as club torch singers. Not to mention Madea’s hilariously blasphemous comic relief interlude rewrites of bible lore, including Noah’s cruise ship ferrying Eve in the VIP section to whatever gloriously outlandish destination.

It’s an interesting statement, especially considering the strong religious component of Perry’s films. And it’s such a potentially loaded statement that I wish Miller hadn’t simply tossed it into her review’s final paragraph as if it were a given without providing further clarification, or maybe even an example or two.

Returning to the sentiments expressed in Martin’s article, I’m troubled when I see such strong statements made concerning Hollywood and religion. I certainly wish Hollywood would provide a more nuanced view of religion and its practitioners. However, I also believe that Christians having an antagonistic attitude towards Hollywood, film critics, etc. — or anything that’s construed as ​“secular” or ​“worldly” — is ultimately unfruitful, and perhaps even bordering on sinful.

I know Christians who have so much contempt for Hollywood — due, no doubt, to certain Hollywood liberals — that I sometimes think they’d just keep on walking if they saw Matt Damon or George Clooney lying in a ditch. And if there’s even a whiff of something that goes against ​“family values” or is even slightly critical of conservative mores, it’s lambasted, sight unseen. But there’s a certain self-righteousness that is the logical end of such thinking. It’s a manifestation of an ​“us vs. them” mentality that can easily lead to a Christian ghetto, or as Walter Kirn put it, an ​“Ark culture.”

Such an attitude can also deride the efforts of Christians who are currently working within Hollywood, folks like Ralph Winter, Barbara Nicolosi, Scott Derrickson, and yes, Tyler Perry who are trying to be ​“salt and light” in an industry that many Christians have shunned and condemned throughout the years. And it also ignores the many films that Hollywood has released that may not fit neatly within some ​“Christian” category, but still hold valuable, powerful, and even beautiful insights for Christians (e.g., No Country for Old Men, Junebug, The New World, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Apostle, the films of Pixar).

Finally, I find it troubling that Martin implies a connection between box office receipts and the value of Perry’s films — or any Christian/​religious film for that matter. When he says that ​“the true success of Perry boils down to two five-letter words: M-O-N-E-Y and J-E-S-U-S,” I do a bit of a double-take. Box office success is wonderful — we all want to see the films we love and appreciate rake in the big bucks. But is box office success truly the highest mark of a film’s greatness? Are ticket sales our only indicator of quality, the thing we look to as the main validation of our efforts?