The 200,000 square foot studio that serves as the headquarters of the Tyler Perry empire in Atlanta, GA is the manifestation of a collective dream. Cecily Tyson and Sidney Poitier are just a couple of the pioneering Black actors who have shared in Perry’s dream come true—they attended the grand opening and cut the ribbons to sound stages that carried their names. Yet, the film pioneer whose vision most foreshadows Perry’s is Oscar Micheaux. If Micheaux—the father of Black cinema—was a man ahead of his time, then Tyler Perry may perhaps be an embodiment of the mogul Micheaux would have been in a world of Black television networks and Black spending power estimated at just below $1 trillion. Much like Perry has done in the 21st century, Micheaux called on lived experience to create much of his work and built his own cinematic infrastructure after the one in Hollywood refused to grant him control over his films.
Any consideration of the Tyler Perry Studios would therefore be incomplete without tracing the red thread that ultimately leads back to the Micheaux Book and Film Company in Chicago, IL. Following the Micheaux model, Perry uses his geographic positioning as an opportunity to carve out a new creative space. The tactic of strategic displacement has granted both visionaries the freedom to tell stories of Black life and spirituality that have been marginalized, and to funnel profits into projects that infuse popular culture with diverse ideas of blackness. For Micheaux, that creative power birthed approximately 40 independent productions; for Perry, it has given life to more than 12 motion pictures, three sitcoms, 1 book, numerous national stage plays and the only Black-owned studio in the U.S. I hope that in viewing this clip of the studio grounds, we might momentarily disentangle Perry’s entrepreneurial vision from his problematic characters, and engage in a serious reflection on what his business model means for Black star power.
The commentary above is based on research for a chapter on Tyler Perry co-authored by Robin R. Means Coleman and Timeka N. Williams.
The Cost of Success
I often wonder if Tyler Perry's monumental success and media empire now directs him rather than the other way around. With so many people dependent on him financially, it seems as though his roughly two film per year output, along with his several television shows, comes not from his own inspiration but rather his need for constant production to justify his massive Atlanta production studio and the many people who work there. This might explain the lack of quality control found in his work, and potentially paints him as a man damned by his own success.
Telling stories outside the studios
Thanks for the post and the clip, Timeka. The very location of the studio is telling, as you say -- it's not in Hollywood. Rather, it's in Atlanta. Does this mean that he still has to operate outside of or parallel to the studio system based in LA? Sure, having this massive complex to his name (and under his financial care) is weighty, as is the responsibility to the scores of people working there. But what weighs more, as Perry references in this clip, is the responsibility to give voice to Black stories. Hollywood isn't listening very well to this call for Black stories (or stories from most non-white, non-male, non-18-to-25-year-old perspectives). Glad that Perry can throw his weight around a bit to make it happen.
Thank you for continuing the conversation. Mary, Perry's success has helped him bring Black stories from the creative minds of other filmmakers to life (e.g. Precious). Additionally, his feature role in the recently released Alex Cross film show that he has leveraged his power gained at the margins to forge a gateway into mainstream Hollywood. Perry power is definitely something that we will see mainfest in many different ways for years to come. Evan, it is interesting to think about the burden of success. This point became very clear in 2010 when Perry canceled one leg of his touring stage play, citing extreme fatigue. Perry owns the responsibility of being a Black artist and a platform for other Black artists. It is worth bearing these multiple weights in mind when we analyze his work. On another note, Perry's films are often the third iteration of a narrative he first crafts as a stage play. Those stage plays are then recorded live and released as DVDs. Thus, the production quality may be the result of a number of factors including a desire to mimic the interactive stage-play aesthetic.
Speaking about responsibilty...
I also thank you for your clip and post Timeka. Three words that Perry said in his conversation with Soledad O'Brien stand out to me: "responsibility," "ownership," and "generations." Moving forward, I am interested in seeing how/if Perry progresses away from the one-man model (that I am happy to learn has roots with Micheaux) and begins to use these studio spaces to generate and support not only his own films, but also the work of other filmmakers who have been shut out by Hollywood, including those who may have a different aesthetic sensibility than his own. As I have heard him express in another interview, understandably he has a lot of projects and interests of his own, but I think that if he were to share his resources and teach what he has learned, he would not only ensure the longevity and impact of his legacy/brand, but also overwhelmingly impact the nature and output of black cultural production within the realm of film.
One should never, ever compare the great Oscar Micheaux to Tyler Perry...not ever! Tyler Perry is a very bright businessman who happens to work in the movie business...period. Oscar Micheaux made films to promote the self image of Black Americans. "Your self image is so powerful it unwittingly becomes your destiny." ---Oscar Micheaux Tyler Perry makes foolish movies for foolish people; his films are absurd and their aim is folly. Let's make the stupid peolpe laugh at themselves. Black America needs a real strong boost of serious self-positive image in the movies and TV. Tyler Perry is not the guy. I do not see anything worthwhile for Black Americans in his films or TV shows. Oscar Micheaux would not appreciate any writer Black or White comparing him with some guy just out trying to make a million bucks. The writer of this article should really do her home work; Oscar Micheaux was a very serious Black Man who did not engage in making fools or fun of the Black race.
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