Total Recall: Directors Who Paved the Way for Tyler Perry

In praise of Killer of Sheep, She's Gotta Have It, and Soul Food.

This week, the prolific Tyler Perry reels off Meet the Browns, his latest examination of African American family life. With that in mind, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at other black directors who've followed their own paths to bring personal stories to the screen.

Though critics have yet to fully warm to Perry's films (his best reviewed effort, Why Did I Get Married?, is at 47 percent on the Tomatometer), there's no disputing their commercial success. Filling a void that's been left empty by Hollywood (and much of the overall entertainment targeted at African Americans), Perry's movies have hit a nerve with black moviegoers. "I know my audience, and they're not people that the studios know anything about," Perry has said.

Tyler Perry on the set of Madea's Family Reunion

He's not the first black director to attempt to fill that space. As early as the 1910s, African American filmmakers were working to document their experience -- or, at the very least, to recast traditional genres with black faces. In 1915, George and Noble Johnson founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. in order to cater to the "race" market; later, such pioneers as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams made films in a variety of genres that played to enthusiastic black audiences -- and were virtually ignored by whites. (Many race films were screened at "midnight rambles" -- so called because segregated cinemas would show movies for blacks at midnight.) In the 1970s, the blaxploitation era ushered in a cast of larger-than-life black action heroes, as well as a sharp crop of black directors.

However, there were a number of young black filmmakers who weren't interested in following Hollywood archetypes. One was Charles Burnett, who, as a student at UCLA, sought to channel the humanism of Europeans like Jean Renoir and the Italian neorealists into a portrait of blue-collar inner-city life. The result was Killer of Sheep (Certified Fresh at 97 percent), a stunningly beautiful, occasionally funny, and at times achingly sad landmark in the history of independent cinema. The film follows the daily lives of some Watts residents, most notably Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his wife (Kaycee Moore) and children. Stan works in a slaughterhouse, a job that has taken a toll; he's constantly looking for something more, and his family finds him cold and distant. Burnett shot the film on a shoestring budget over the course of two years, using non-professional actors; the film was briefly released in 1977, but the rich, evocative soundtrack (featuring Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Etta James, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, among others) became a liability when the rights could not be cleared. (In 2007, the legal issues had been straightened out, and the film received a limited theatrical release.)

Killer of Sheep is very thinly plotted, and probably won't appeal to those who demand a strong narrative structure. But it has no shortage of striking images: scenes of children at play, of domestic joy and longing, of the poetry of faces, of everyday trials and tribulations. (In one memorable moment, Stan and a friend carry a car motor down a steep flight of stairs and put it in the back of a pickup -- and watch it fly out the back as they drive away.) In its own quiet way, Killer of Sheep embodies the disillusionment many felt after the heady promise of the civil rights era. (It's hard not to get a chill at the scenes of sheep being led to slaughter juxtaposed with those of everyday ghetto life.) John Beifuss of the Memphis Commercial Appeal calls it "a time capsule of 1970s style and attitude that remains utterly timeless in its respect for its characters and its recognition of the despair, passion, boredom, playfulness and cruelty nurtured not just by life in the ghetto but by life itself."

Of course, the black experience is not confined to the ghetto. It may be an obvious point, but as more African Americans picked up cameras, they began to document life from a number of different perspectives. Case in point: Spike Lee's debut feature She's Gotta Have It, a witty tale of romance set in a more middle class milieu. Shot on a bare-bones budget, Gotta is the story of fiercely independent Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), who finds herself courted by three very different men: Greer (John Canada Terrell), a narcissistic model; Mars Blackman (Lee), a wacky, childish bike messenger; and Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a decent, well-meaning guy who also has some control issues. Nola has little problem remaining unattached to these guys, until they become embittered with each other -- and demand that she make a choice.

Lee would go on to make greater films (like the nearly perfect Do the Right Thing, 100 percent), as well as movies that delved more deeply into the complexities of the black experience (Get on the Bus [88 percent], for one). But while She's Gotta Have It may be Lee's most playful film, it doesn't shy away from potent, tough questions about identity, class, and the rules of romance. With this early effort, Lee was already on his way to becoming one of American cinema's most inquisitive, probing filmmakers. "Lee's first feature posed him as a mid-'80s rival to Woody Allen, nearly equaling him in the psychological authenticity of his characters and perhaps bettering him in grace and virtuosity and sheer creative glee," wrote Peter Keough of The Chicago Reader.

The 1990s saw an influx of African American filmmaking talent gain commercial and critical success in Hollywood. Some, like John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, 98 percent) and the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, 86 percent), sought to bring a clear eye to the struggles of inner city African Americans, investing their films with incendiary power and bleak grandeur. If those films feel like a gut-punch, George Tillman, Jr's Soul Food (Certified Fresh at 80 percent) is more like a comforting hug. But it's no less significant, in that it proved (if proof was needed) that African American-themed films could follow their own rules -- and become huge hits in the process. Soul Food is the story of a family that gathers at the home of Mama Joe (Irma P. Hall) every Sunday for tasty food and honest talk. But when Joe takes ill, the family bonds are ruptured; Joe's three daughters, workaholic Teri (Vanessa Williams), stay-at-home Mom Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), and sweet newlywed Bird (Nia Long) find themselves in the midst of personal crises that sometimes spill over into the family's affairs. Maxine and Teri have always been rivals, and Teri and her husband are drifting apart; meanwhile, Bird worries that her new husband Lem (Mekhi Phifer), newly released from the joint, won't be able to find a job (or fully connect with her tight-knit clan). The story is narrated by Maxine's young son Ahmad (a wonderful Brandon Hammond), who takes it upon himself to bring everyone together, just like his grandma used to.

If Soul Food's plot veers into soap opera territory at times, and if the characters are generally archetypal, the actors invest in their characters such weight that we like these people, despite their faults (it should come as little surprise that the movie inspired a TV spinoff). Soul Food has more than a little to say about the importance of maintaining tradition and familial ties, and the shots of sumptuous dishes are savory enough to qualify as a character in their own right. Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle called Soul Food "a warm, funny, touching African American family drama, the kind of bittersweet melodrama that critics tend to relegate as crowd-pleasing corn. We could use more when it's this well done."

In addition, check out the Tinseltown-skewering Hollywood Shuffle (87 percent) the teenage antics of House Party (95 percent), the period intrigue of Eve's Bayou (79 percent) and the ribald talk of Barbershop (84 percent) for more fine work from talented African American directors.


Big Freeze

Frank Fischer

Although I%u2019m sure the author has good intentions, this article is unnecessary and demeaning to Tyler Perry and his body of work. You don't see any articles about white directors who paved the way for Scorcese. Tyler Perry is a great director in his own right, and he doesn't have to be cast in the shadow of previous black directors. Race shouldn't define him as a director, but that is exactly what this article is hinting at.

Mar 19 - 04:46 PM

Jen Yamato

Jen Yamato

It seems fairly inarguable that Perry is a filmmaker with a very specific niche; namely, the black American experience. It's not a label that Tim or this article is assigning him. I think this is a well-written piece and celebrates a subculture in Hollywood that deserves more exposure, if only to discuss the trend but also to call attention to notable movies of the past.

Mar 19 - 04:55 PM


Ballsack Enormous

... tyler perry's a fruit

Mar 19 - 05:08 PM

Jen Yamato

Jen Yamato

Very eloquent, hewpot.

Mar 19 - 05:13 PM


Newage Lightbulb

I think it's hilarious that people won't come out and say that his movies, plays, and TV shows suck ... because he's black.

The stuff he makes is so unbelievably bottom-of-the-barrel. He's like a nubian Jim Belushi. Everyone will happily rail for hours about how eye-gougingly awful 'According to Jim' is, but they all chuckle nervously and pretend that the Madea films and 'House of Payne' are comedy/creative gold. Makes one yearn for Dave Chappelle to stop taking crazy pills.

Mar 19 - 07:22 PM


Dermot Foley

He has every right to creatively express himself. His movies are profitable and studios will continue to pay him.... the same criteria they hold all directors by. Wether one person enjoys his movies or hates them should not be the question. It is a statistical fact that some people do enjoy his work and that should be good enough for anyone who cares about the constitution. Possibly, we should consider how those who condem his work could be inferred as condeming his perspecitves and those of his fans.

Mar 19 - 07:34 PM


Newage Lightbulb

Right, if you don't like Tyler Perry, you're a racist! Guess that means if you don't like Kathy Griffin you're an anti-Semite, right? Bzzt.

Mar 19 - 08:02 PM


Newage Lightbulb

Right, if you don't like Tyler Perry, you're a racist! Guess that means if you don't like Kathy Griffin you're an anti-Semite, right? Bzzt.

Mar 19 - 08:02 PM


Thabang Phetla

i thnk tylers movies suck, the comodification of the black experience is played out

Mar 19 - 11:39 PM


Scott Parejo

I can only honestly say that I have seen two pieces by Tyler. Until I hear otherwise from another reliable source, I will not be seeing another unless he improves. His movies have production money obviously, but no production value. He directs them like a play instead of the medium he's working in. So my biggest problem with this article is why are we comparing a chalk on the sidewalk artist with oil painters? Spike Lee is best to be compared with such creative directors as Kurosawa or Scorsese. Whereas Tyler could be compared with Woody Allen or Kevin Smith. Just because he's black, doesn't mean we shouldn't lump him in with visually unstimulating directors. Note that the latter group fills a void that Hollywood doesn't have as good of a grasp on (Tyler with African Americans, Allen with snooty intellectuals, etc.), so I am not skipping that aspect of the article. All I am saying is that Perry can't hold a candle to the importance of a Spike Lee who was able to do his own movies and Hollywood movies, while not killing the integrity of the medium. Perry's fans have no idea how much better his movies could be if he would just put in a little pride and effort into directing for the proper medium.

Mar 20 - 12:20 AM


Matthew Thomas

Someone stop him!!!

Mar 20 - 02:37 AM


Jeff Cooper

Outstanding well written article. Thank you for talking about a demographic that Hollywood does not care about. They can still wonder why Will Smith packs them in at the Box Office. The evidence is here in this article. And yes I am white.

Mar 20 - 03:51 AM


Will Padin

Am I the only one who thinks TP is overplayed and overrated!? I don't laugh at any of his movies! Whats wrong with people!? F'ck!

Mar 20 - 05:48 AM


J'rome Holmes II

It is a well written piece and the simple fact is that his movies are made to appeal to a certain audience. Majority of who he makes these films for agree that they are great for what they are (inspirational films for those going through these situations). If you can not relate or simply don't like these kind of films then of course you will think they are not good. But really, stop saying these films need to stop because unlike the hollywood films that have no originality and no real feel or vibe (just mindless garabage put out to get your money), his films actually have purpose other than profit and speak to a great deal of people (Thus the tremendous box office and DVD sales).

Mar 20 - 07:12 AM


Will Padin

I'd pick Robocop over anything by Perry.

Mar 20 - 07:45 AM


Jimmy Heisner

You forgot to mention the steroids that paved the way for him.

Mar 20 - 09:18 AM


Chad W

Who's Tyler Perry again??

Oh yeah, the no talent hack who remains on TV's crappiest channels that no one watches.

Mar 20 - 11:39 AM


matt smith

i disagree with anyone who says that tyler perry's movies are anything other than mediocre (at best) exercises in perpetrating stereotypes of african-americans, and the fake feel-good homegrown nature of his humor/ethos/whatever you wanna call it. just like soul food (in which eating the extremely fattening food is what causes a heart attack thus setting the story in motion, only to, at film's end come right back around to it like it's not the problem), this film skirts the issues that the very characters perry portrays often come right back around to making the same mistakes they would have made at the beginning, but often with the added knowledge that 'god will help us'. well, guess what? maybe that's not enough. maybe in addition to religion, there should be something else. not to discount religion in any way, but to discount its undue emphasis as a redemptive quality in these people's lives ESPECIALLY as portrayed by 'filmmakers' like tyler perry and his ilk.

to compare his importance to someone like spike lee or john singleton (or hell, even the hughes brothers) is like saying larry the cable guy is the equivalent of jean renoir. if perry were to make a movie called 'TYLER PERRY'S SOFT-SHOE MINSTREL SHOW' it would be closer to the core of what he actually perpetuates with his brand of half-concocted 'entertainment.'

Mar 20 - 12:39 PM


Chad W

Jen Yamato, you're not serious? are you? no way.

If this Tyler Perry is showing a realistic view of an American subculture, you might as well say that The Cosby Show was also a poignant, yet accurate view of life in a New York City suburb.

Mar 20 - 02:07 PM


Matanuki .

I agree, Jen. More exposure (diversified exposure) is needed. And yes, the article was a good read. However, I've taken issue with the descriptions "the black experience" and "sub-culture." In the first case, and this is far too often used in casual discourse, "the black experience" suggests that black people are some kind of monolithic creature. All, ultimately, fruit of the same tree, complete with a fixed set of moral, economic, spiritual, sexual, and intellectual criterion.

This is the problem, I imagine (and have observed), most of Perry's detractors have with his work. Especially black viewers who don't fit within the narrow confines of his mold, and who don't find, furthermore (worse?), his stories and visual style to be all that interesting. Challenging. Creative... Certainly, my point, not to the extent worthy of an association with Spike Lee no less! The way he constantly regurgitates the same old homogeneous characters with little to no dimension, -to speak nothing of his atrocious Medea concoction!- leaves much is left to be desired.

In the second case, "sub" in front of "culture" lends itself to the assumption that the culture in question is in some way secondary to an imagined primary culture. The problem with that is obvious. Black people, from all walks and throughout recorded history, have had far too much of an influence on America the land and America the cultural identity to be considered "sub" in any regard.

The implications of the term bear a relationship with my problem with how black characters are too often described in many a movie synopsis, as the "black man", "black woman", "black girl", when, conversely, a white character is described as a man, woman, girl, or simply by name. It suggests that white is the standard, and that black is the alternative to an imagined normalcy.

Nothing against you of course, Jen. My beef is with the language.

Mar 20 - 03:14 PM

Jen Yamato

Jen Yamato

rle4lunch, I wasn't saying Tyler Perry's films are "realistic" portrayals of anything. Just that they are portrayals of a specific social group and culture.

Matanuki, thanks for putting your argument kindly. I hear what you're saying and agree that these labels, for lack of a better word, are tricky. I personally don't place Perry in the same category as Spike Lee or many of these other filmmakers; I don't think that the point of this article was to say he's as good, but rather that he purposefully speaks to a shared audience.

We can pick apart the semantics of a word like "subculture," but then where do you draw the line between what is a "culture" and what is a "sub" culture? I ask this quite sincerely. If black Americans are too influential on American history to be a subculture, then what of Asian Americans and others?

In my view, a mixed culture is the standard, and anything focusing specifically on a subgroup - black, asian, female, gay - could sensitively be termed a subculture, no slight intended.

Mar 20 - 04:01 PM


Matanuki .

No, I don't think you meant a slight in any way. But, to respond to your question. If anything, American culture itself is a subculture -in a catchall sense of the word. Land of immigrants.

I had a feeling, by the way, that you'd bring up Asian Americans. (You can probably tell by my screenname that, though I'm not Asian, I am vastly influenced by Asian culture) Anyway, what I think is that any group, culture, or sexual orientation that has American at the tail end of their name is not, by definition, "sub".

Indeed, a Mixed Culture is the standard. So I would say that where I draw the line is at the same place where North America draws its border lines. Anything within those boundaries that can legitimately be considered subculture would be determined more by a combination of region, beliefs, class, interest, education, and experience. In other words, not the inevitabilities of race or sex. Hip hop culture, for example, is a subculture.

Mar 20 - 05:11 PM

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