Sacred Spaces: The Room Tyler Perry Owes God, Black Women and Himself

Updated: Jan 8

Photo Credit: Twitter

In what I’m sure was meant to be a moment of inspiration, Tyler Perry tweeted a video showcasing all of the scripts he’d written in 2019. In the video, he shared how most shows have a writers’ room but he’s the sole writer for all his shows. Describing it as “work ethic”, I have no doubt that Tyler saw it as his way of encouraging us to get to work on whatever dream or goal we have for this year.

Yea…well, you know what they say about good intentions.

Chile, Black Twitter had a field day. I don’t know how many times I saw his video quote tweeted with the same sentence: “We can tell.” While I knew what folks meant (I mean…I saw “Acrimony” too), I was actually surprised. Regardless of what people think about the quality of his work, folks can’t deny Tyler Perry puts folk to work. Black actors who star in Tyler’s productions are able to later command salaries that rival their White counterparts because of how much his movies gross at the box office. And “Black Hollywood”, Tyler’s studio compound in Atlanta, is the fruition of so many people’s dreams­–not just his. With the lack of diversity in Hollywood’s writers’ rooms and the number of Black writers who need jobs, it was disheartening to learn that Tyler isn’t giving them any.

And, then came the not-so quiet whispers. There were folks saying Tyler doesn’t employ writers because he doesn’t want to pay them. There’s the story of Tyler firing writers back in 2008 for wanting to unionize in order to be paid on par with their colleagues. Then, there’s the story of two actors unions forbidding their members from working on Madea on the Run in 2015. And then, there’s Tyler saying he’d never join the Writer’s Guild of America. It’s a rabbit hole that, if you’re new to the entertainment world (like I am), can be a little too confusing. Because, even after saying he would work with WGA to “dramatically increase the number of minority writers working in Hollywood today” back in 2008, yesterday’s Twitter video tells a different story.

There are those who would say Tyler’s refusal to hire writers, accept notes from networks and his insistence to be a one man machine signals narcissism and greed. While that may be true, it also pushes against the heart of the gospel that is at the center of Tyler’s works. Creation is an interdependent project. God did not create us to survive without each other. What does it mean when the work designed to point you to that God refuses to acknowledge this? Additionally, Tyler grounds his work in Black culture and Black people. We are communal. It was and remains impossible for us to exist without leaning on each other. Iron has always sharpened iron­–in our interpersonal relationships and even in writers' rooms.

But, the more I thought about Tyler’s video, the more I couldn’t let it go. For me, it wasn’t just about Tyler not hiring Black writers to work on his shows. Because much of his work is grounded at the intersection of faith and entertainment, Tyler Perry’s characters comprise the largest fictional representation of Black Christian women in pop culture and mass media. That means Tyler Perry isn’t just refusing to hire writers. He’s refusing to let Black women write about their own experiences as he capitalizes off of them.

Womanist and Black feminist theologians have consistently detailed the danger in people other than Black women telling their faith stories. Specific to Tyler himself, womanists and Black feminists responded to his body of work and examined how dangerous the creation and mass consumption of the representations of Black womanhood in his work actually are. In seminary at the time, my faith was already undergoing a radical shift. While pursuing my MDiv, I found the language to articulate that difference. I could no longer move in spaces where my faith and feminism were forbidden synergy. What was okay before wasn’t anymore. That included representations of Black Christian womanhood drenched in evangelicalism. That included Tyler Perry’s movies and shows.

I remember watching bootlegged copies of his plays. I remember being happy that, with my first “real” job after graduation, I was able to purchase tickets to one of his plays for my mama and grandma. I remember what it felt like to be in the movie theater opening night for “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and I remember how we all cried when Charles (played by Steve Harris) finally apologized to Helen (played by Kimberly Elise) after years of abuse. It was as if every sister was accepting the apologies they knew they’d never receive.

Black women have found healing and solace seeing themselves reflected in Tyler’s work. That can’t be denied. At the same time, it’s okay to say those representations of Black womanhood feel a bit off and stale. This is precisely why his work could benefit from a writers' room. Black women deserve to be at the table when our experiences are crafted and it means that we also have a right to say when representation falls flat.

There is a pretty steep generational divide when it comes to supporting Tyler’s work. Older Black Christian women identify with him because they see themselves in his characters and the theology in our churches reinforce the messages found in his stories. Either they were the wayward women who were redirected thanks to the love of God and a good man or they knew women who were. They agree wholeheartedly with the evangelical messages that are put forth in Tyler’s productions because they subscribe to them every Sunday.

Younger sisters aren’t having it. Tyler's work falls flat with us because we know how damaging that theology and those Black Christian womanhood tropes are. We watched our mothers, grandmothers and aunties contort themselves into being respectable women only to still be harmed by the men and the churches they love. Our understanding of what it means to be holy women isn’t bound by a dogmatic list of dos and don’ts but it’s found in the freedom to be authentic and complicated. We refuse to see our ambition and autonomy as sinful.

But here’s what I’ve learned: you can’t critique Tyler Perry. He’s off limits. According to the masses, he’s a good Black man who is doing a lot of good in the community. He doesn’t owe us anything and, if we don’t like what he’s producing, we can change the channel and go build our own empire (…because it’s that easy, right?). Therein lies the problem. When we insulate each other from critique, we stunt growth and limit our ability to soar and thrive. Critique doesn’t feel good; we’re human and we have feelings. But, when it comes from a place of love, it is generative and productive.

Everybody doesn’t like Tyler; I get that. But all of us aren’t haters. And, if he owes anybody anything, he owes Black women a lot. It was representations of us and our stories that made him wealthy. And some of us have consistently supported his work (…even “Acrimony”) and our desire to push him to be better isn’t coming from a place of hate but of deep love and gratitude. When you live in community (and telling Black women’s stories means you live in community with them), you’re owed the respect of being heard. We just want him to hear us.

I deeply value and respect Tyler Perry. He showed me it was possible to ground my work in faith and be successful. There are parts of his blueprint I took to craft my own. I’ve watched his BET Awards “Ultimate Icon” acceptance speech countless times for the motivation to persevere. Even in critique, I've tried to make space for deep respect and gratitude. That space still matters even as I can't consume his work anymore without grieving how Black women of faith are portrayed. We can love Tyler and be honest about the fact our relationships with God and ourselves deserve better representation. Our stories deserve to be told in their fullness. And, if Tyler’s work is unwilling to make those shifts, it’s time to see him publicly invest in people who will. It can be another way he tries to “help somebody cross”.

I talked about this until late last night and until my friends, tired of the entire conversation, told me to let it go because Tyler was never going to hire writers and he’s never going to change how Black women are represented in his work. Sadly, his response proves they might be right. I’m holding out hope, though. I’m hoping that he saw Black Twitter take him to task and sits with what his refusal to hire Black writers really means. And I’m hoping that, in these most recent decades of his career, he’s encountered some different Black women and has found value in telling their stories. And I’m hoping he will give them what they need and step out of the way so they can tell it themselves.