Tag Archives: Tyler Perry

Tu(r)ning to Black Love

20 Feb

Whitney Houston with her mother Cissy

This past week, I found myself swept in an emotional whirlwind witnessing Whitney’s homegoing while remembering that she was not even in the ground before the Fox-affiliated shock jocks called her a babbling idiot, bag lady, and a crack ho that should have died years ago. From AM talk radio to morning cable television, a Fox News anchor “jokingly” told Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) to “step away from the crack pipe” to squash her criticism of a racist conservative right.  And right as I prepared myself for the first Valentine’s Day unhitched in years, I heard more misogynoir (i.e., hatred of Black women) news from the pimp-like-rapper Too Short who “advised” middle school boys to “turn girls out” in a video posted to the XXL hip hop website.

Where is the love?

This past week, I would have been a Black woman undone if I did not turn to other women of color to savor the soul-stirring, love-filled acts of solidarity in a month that has been so soured by hate.[1]

While folks are giving kudos to a masterful, out-of-character performance by actor Tyler “Madea” Perry, I want to remember Kim Burrell’s loving act to her sistah-friend. The Texas-born gospel singer transformed a song that could serve as the title track for the civil rights movement; she changed Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come to one that not only spoke about Whitney as a daughter, friend, and mother, but it spoke to the lived reality of countless Blackgirls who watched her metallic casket and mourned for the Black girl we know (inside) and for the Black woman she/we dared to be. I believe Burrell’s spirit-driven interpretation will stand as a counter-narrative against the lusty, flesh-bound and career-centric monologues offered by some menfolk. (Side eye to you Clive.)  Kim Burrell might have singlehandedly replaced my Denzel dreamscape and my cinematic memory of Malcolm X’s assassination with her lifting tribute to a fallen (but not forgotten) star.

This past week ended with the debut of a self-proclaimed Black feminist in her cable show simply called, Melissa Harris-Perry.  Let’s just say if Oprah is America’s honorary mother, then Prof. Harris-Perry is slated to be our teacher because she was schooling a national audience about intersections of race and gender, and she provided a much-needed Black feminist perspective, which is often offered by Black men (if included at all). When I tuned in to her show, she warned her audience that we’d enter “nerdland” or the place where political commentary is spliced by definitions, old videos, and graphs to add context to oversimplified, hot-button topics. After an emotional whirlwind, it feels lovely to say I will be (at) home on the weekends where folks can hate (yes, I’m looking at you Cornel West), but I can turn on and turn to Black women-centered love.

Melissa Harris-Perry and Sister Citizen book cover

Melissa Harris-Perry and Sister Citizen book cover copied from blacktieandflipflops

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[1] This past week I was able to trade trash talk and blackgirl giggles, remember-when stories, love-strong hugs, eye-to-eye recognition, and women of color wisdom with Stephanie Troutman, Bettina Love, Elaine Richardson, Elizabeth Mendez Berry, and Joan Morgan. I am enriched by your generosity and your creative, intellectual and politically-grounded work.

(More) Love for Awkward Black Girl

11 Aug

 

Image of Issa Rae of Awkward Black Girl looking awkward in an Awkward Black Girl tank top.

I was writing a pretty depressing piece for today about why I’m not voting for Obama in 2012 but I’m still a bit skittish about comments post Kreayshawn so I need another month or two to mentally prepare for what I anticipate will be some serious backlash. Plus, I’m tired of being sad and overwhelmed by what’s happening in the world so I thought I’d spotlight something that makes me smile!

I’m talking about The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, an amazing web series that we’ve mentioned several times on the blog, facebook and tumblr!  Writer/director/actress Issa Rae plays J, an awkward black girl with a penchant for writing violent rhymes to blow off steam, a deep and abiding hate for spoken word, and the ability to clock and interrogate racism with righteous precision and be hilarious while doing it!

The cast and crew were worried that they’d have to stop the show because they had run out of money so they started a Kickstarter and have raised over $50,000 with an initial $30,000 goal!

The success of the show and the fundraising effort comfort me and suggest that the announcement of a possible Tyler Perry TV channel doesn’t have to mean that the apocalypse is upon us. It is possible for independent awesomeness to survive and thrive if we are willing to support it and it looks like we are!

On #ForColoredGirls *Spoiler Alert*

8 Nov

Production Still of Female Leads in For Colored Girls

I got to see an advanced screening of Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls promoted as a fundraiser for Sistersong and Sisterlove, two of my favorite social justice organizations and collaborators in a campaign called Trust Black Women. Before the film, Loretta Ross, black feminist warrior activist, described their work to get billboards taken down in Atlanta that compared black women’s decisions to terminate their pregnancies with genocide. They represent some of the fiercest women of color reproductive justice organizers in the South and beyond, and like the fierceness of Shange’s original choreopoem, their brilliance was smothered and silenced by a black man who feels like he can tell our stories better than we can. 

If you haven’t seen the movie, I can say the critics got it right. It’s a whole lotta mess: anachronistic, unbelievable, over the top, basically like any other Tyler Perry production. But there are moments, moments where seasoned actors stretch beyond the limitations of the director and a disjointed script to make magic. Can there be an Oscar for colored girls who do the damn thing in a Tyler Perry film when the writing is not enuf? Kimberly Elise FTW and Macy Gray was fire too. And I love me some Anika Noni Rose, even though I always feel like she’s doing the big drama of stage when she’s on the screen (worked nicely though for the choreopoem). In spite of some fabulous performances, For Colored Girls completely misses the original’s tone and message. From Shange’s work we get themes of self-love, pleasure, hurt and healing, decentering men in our lives, etc. Tyler’s framing leaves us with the exact opposite understandings; sex leads to pain, pay more attention to the men in your lives, know your role, and don’t forget you are some how responsible for whatever misery life brings you.

*spoiler alert*

What I really want to talk about is Tyler’s obsession with men who have sex with men. I mean in every film there is always some plot point or dialog that includes a man who looks like he just walked off the set of Noah’s Arc talking about how gay he isn’t. In this film, Janet Jackson, channeling Meryl Streep a la Devil Wears Prada, has a cough (people with HIV cough faintly, didn’t you know?) and a husband who in one of the first scenes is literally caught with his pants down receiving oral sex from a man. Carl is a stock broker who is so emasculated by his wife that he needs to get his submission elsewhere. “Walking down the street holding hands with a man, that’s gay!” he says in total disgust before he goes on to admit to having sex with men.

Though this plot point was apparently penned by Shange herself in her new edition of the text, this scene felt like a window into Tyler Perry’s and a lot of ostensibly straight men’s hearts. Showing genuine affection for another man is a sin but having sex with a man to reclaim your masculinity after being emasculated by women who don’t know their role is another story. There’s no discussion of Carl’s desire here. Bitchy black women are not only responsible for rape (how couldn’t she see the signs that we so clearly see as the audience?), their children being thrown out of windows (if she’d just left him earlier it couldn’t have happened) they are also the reason that black men must “bend” turn to each other for sex. In other words, black men have sex with men because black women won’t play their position, which is one of submission.

The film leaves you with a sense that  there’s something these women should have done, could have done differently to prevent these things from happening to them. What was a choreopoem of colored girls self-redemption becomes a PSA on how black women need to make different choices to forestall the violence that befalls them. The men however are simply reacting to the poor choices made by these women and as such are never truly held accountable for their actions, a posthumous slap to the face and forlorn gaze from a prison cell notwithstanding.

Perry was able to squelch condemnation from the very organizations most able to raise constructive criticism regarding his simplistic narrative by providing an opportunity to screen the film in advance for their benefit. What could have been a powerful moment to add the complexity that Perry missed, instead became an opportunity for Tyler Perry Studios to ask us to spread the For Colored Girls gospel for them as we were implored to tell our friends to go see it opening weekend. A brief talk back that included not one criticism of the film left me feeling confused and disappointed. If these women warriors could (would) not bring much-needed nuance how would other audiences (with less contact with the realities the film attempts to portray) react?

Black people have some healing to do. Tyler in particular needs more than his plays, movies, and TV show to work through his boyhood traumas. Like Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged album and subsequent performances, trying to work your sh*t out publicly in your art doesn’t always provide the most liberatory frame through which to process. Self medicating through art may seem better than other more obvious self-destructive drugs of choice but when your own wounds keep you from acknowledging that you are capable of and culpable in inflicting others trauma begets more trauma and a vicious cycle is created (an important point we could have learned through the film itself).

Tyler’s rage at the black women who didn’t protect him comes through in every production he’s been associated with and perhaps his desire to understand their neglect might be better directed in the service of telling his own story, a story of a brown boy who wasn’t man enough for his father but man enough for the mother of a friend who molested him and the THREE men who did the same.  What might it mean for Tyler to tell his own story such that Maurice Robinson, Anthony Flagg, Jamal Parris and Spencer LeGrande might have had a more receptive public to hear their truths? Tyler’s hurt haunts For Colored Girls, muddling the intricate and multi-layered tapestry that Shange constructed, and leaving this colored girl with little recourse but to reach back for the rainbows of the original.

On Audience

8 Jul

*updated 7/11/10. the video was incorrect. see the correct video below*

To begin with an aside, a video:

I’m really not down with proselytizing and trying to get folks saved. No. The reason I am interested in this performance is because the singers are, of necessity, blind but there is a background noise – of hands clapping – that features only a female group. I want to be attentive to the gendered dynamics of such performance. On the one side, literally, there are male singers who cannot see the women occupying the other side of the stage. The women are there to applaud the actions of the men. It is this sort of gendered incongruence that I think is a feature of much black popular culture. The women in this performance serve as a repository, as an audience for the men who are blind (to them, to their posture) but nevertheless need the performance of the feminine for their own performance of song to cohere properly.  Of course, the genius of the “Blind Boys” was in the fact of their blindness, in the fact that we are an ableist world that privileges certain modes of bodily existence as normative.  This literal blindness was exploited by record companies who would utilize these voices while not paying the proper amounts of money.  I want to be attentive to the ways that blindness as a metaphor can work in the service of ableist normativity and say that this writing is against that sort of ableism.

As the necessarily constructed audience is female, I want to give attention to other constructions of audience. The problematic construction of audience that I detect in the performance of “Leaning” is the reason why I am bothered by Tyler Perry. The ways in which media constructs black audience has all sorts of resonances for the ways we think through and think about gender. So I want to offer a few words about how TP constructs his audiences and how a figure like Aaron McGruder – by way of the cartoon The Boondocks – works against these gendered problematics.

To begin again for the second time, another aside: when I talk to black women – if we’re on the phone, if we go to dinner, if we’re walking down the street – they often call me “girl…” you know, in that “sistergirlfriend” sort of way. Sometimes we’re talking about dating and relationships. Other times, we’re talking about food and football. But somehow, I – a male-identified, male-bodied subject – come to occupy the space of “girl” for these women with whom I am in such close relationship. What this hints at, for me at least, is that the ways in which “sistergirlfriend” is constructed has as much to do with the sorts of conversations that take place between folks as it does with the bodies who sit in front of or walk beside us. We don’t always agree but we converse. Because of the ease with which we can speak about issues, because of the comfort with knowing each other, because we glide in and out of a variety of topics, I can figure differently – as “girl”…and that’s real cool to me. (Though, I am always aware of the gendered dynamics of any conversational transaction between myself and women; I do not name this ease with relationship in order to declare that I am not still influenced by and must daily struggle against sexism, misogyny and patriarchy.) I name this relationship in order to recalibrate how gender and audience is conceived, not necessarily based on bodily construction but equally on the possibility for conversation between subjects.

And thus, Tyler Perry. We all know about and many lament the work he produces. Black women, for him it appears, are a monolithic group. They are either professionally successful but vindictive or professionally wanting but sweet. They are trifling or triumphant…all through the power of Jesus and a man who will serve as an erotic and romantic partner. His work is as homophobic as it is sexist, patriarchal and boring. Nuance is not the name of his game. TP constructs audience, it appears, based on lack: of a man, of success, of spiritual fulfillment. His construction of a female audience is the reproduction of the blind boys who sing and the seeing women who only clap. There is no transaction taking place – which is to say, there is no conversation between the blind boy (TP) and the mute but clappy audience.

As the uber-phallus, he gives women the images they want, or are supposed to want. Those who speak back are simply haters, or misguided or bourgeois. The only ones who figure for him are those who keep clapping as he keeps singing his song. Why is the construction of audience done in such a way to have TP performing and while the audience mutely claps along? What do these continual refrains mean when considering how gender is thought, how sexism, patriarchy and homophobia perpetuate? Normative ideology regarding women as receptacles is reproduced by these constructions of audience. We can clap but we can’t speak back. We can speak back but the ways we speak will be shut out because of the singing. And the blind boys will not see our posture because of the flashing lights of celebrity.

There has to be another way. I find Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks refreshing for just this reason. His construction of audience diverges from TP’s constructions because the audience – by way of his satire – are required to be critically distant to the work (as opposed to how TP dismisses critics). A cartoon that features anime styling and fight sequences, it could be argued (at least from one blogger’s point of view) that McGruder critiques the very sexist, patriarchal and homophobic folks that TP pacifies with his performances. Using the episode “Pause” (or, what has been affectionately dubbed “The Tyler Perry Episode”) as an example, McGruder’s usage of the phrase “no homo” and the term “pause” in the episode by the annoyingly sweet, misguided, faux-thug Riley as a declaration to distance himself from “gay sounding” phrases is a literal send-up of folks (from Cam’ron on down to Kanye) who use this sort of rhetoric. “How can I know you not gay if you don’t say ‘no homo’, Granddad” is what he says. Riley repeats these two phrases so much throughout the episode that they enter the realm of the ridiculous. The audience McGruder constructs must ask what the usage of these phrases mean by someone like Riley – a character whom many find humorous but silly – and then reflect on their own usage of such cornyass vitriol.  In other words, most people like Riley but few want to be Riley.  But Riley has literally exhausted all of the rhetorical possibility for explanations of “no homo” and “pause”; the explanations for such phrases he offers are evacuated of any coherence or depth.  For one to continue with this language means they have to figure out a way to do so without resorting to the types of rhetorical flourishes Riley proffers.  This is a difficult task.  McGruder allows his audience to think differently.

Of course, also in that episode are the ways in which Winston Jerome (TP?) slips between drag, effeminate and hypermasculine performance while still maintaining the language and sentiments of homophobia, sexism, patriarchy and religiosity. The plays produced by Winston Jerome in the episode force a consideration of the type of audience we are when we participate in his enterprise. Stretching Winston Jerome as a metaphor to his limits, the character implodes: hella sexist, homophobic and patriarchal while at the same time sometimes in drag, sometimes effeminate, sometimes hypermasculine, always in love with Jesus. Whereas TP constructs an audience that must sit, watch and clap along, McGruder creates a situation in which the audience cannot idly sit and watch but must create critical distance between themselves and all of the characters in order to assert their own personhood. That’s a lengthy way of saying that McGruder allows his audience to think, to challenge, to dissent.  Similar to the ways in which the audience must create critical distance between onself and depictions of Riley, audience must do likewise with depictions of Winston Jerome (or…TP).  The conflictual nature of ambivalence is protracted in such a way that in order to enjoy TP, one must figure out a way around the sexism, patriarchy, religiosity and homophobia found in those performances.

This is not to say that McGruder constructs a “masculine” audience. Rather, it is to say that McGruder’s audience has to engage listening practices in radically different ways than TP’s. We don’t just stand, listen and clap to the beat. We reorient it, we revise it, we refresh it.

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