Three facts define Tyler Perry’s film career.
He has no rival among contemporary American filmmakers for output. Woody Allen should be so prolific.
Nor has he a rival for uninterrupted commercial success. Even Steven Spielberg has the occasional “1941” or “Hook” in his filmography. There’s nothing like that in Perry’s.
Yet then there’s fact number three: Perry’s little known to most non-African-American moviegoers. That a comparably successful figure in popular music would have no crossover appeal would be unthinkable — not just today, but pretty much any time since the mid-1960s. Perry isn’t just an ongoing phenomenon (which he is). He’s also a corrective to any rosy assumptions about the supposed inclusiveness of American moviegoing.
Perry turns 43 in September. If output, not age, determined eligibility for retirement, he could have started collecting Social Security a long time ago. Perry is the anti-Terrence Malick. Since 2002, he’s written, directed, and usually starred in some two dozen feature films and filmed versions of his stage plays — and that’s not counting the three television series he’s been responsible for. He’s not so much a mini-mogul as a mini-industry (based in Atlanta, not Hollywood).
Perry’s latest film, “Madea’s Witness Protection,” arrives in theaters Friday. His first feature, “Madea’s Family Reunion,” came out in 2006. That was also the year James Brown died. It’s as if the hardest-working man in show business felt he could safely pass on his title to a worthy successor once Perry had established himself.
It’s not just that Perry has been beyond Woody Allen prolific. He’s also been far, far beyond Woody Allen profitable. The movies aren’t blockbusters. But they bring in a very solid return. “Madea Goes to Jail” (2009), for example, grossed more than $90 million on a budget of $17.5 million. As an entertainment entrepreneur, Perry rivals Oprah Winfrey. Last year Forbes magazine named him the highest-paid man in American entertainment. The magazine estimated that between May 2010 and May 2011 he earned $130 million.
One reason the movies are so profitable is that Perry doesn’t use stars who command eight-figure salaries. You won’t find a Will Smith or Denzel Washington in a Perry movie. You’ll generally find Perry, though. He’s been in all but two of the features he’s directed. And the words “Tyler Perry’s” precede the official titles of all his films (other than his adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls”). The man knows what his audience wants — him — and he makes sure his audience knows that he’s what it’s getting. If anyone in Hollywood qualifies as a genre unto himself, it’s Perry.
Perry’s recurring character Madea is his biggest claim to fame. She’s a tough-talkin’, gun-totin’ grandma. Her name is a pun twice over, on “mad” and Medea, of Greek tragedy fame. Madea belongs to a comic cross-dressing tradition among African-American comedians, Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, Jamie Foxx’s Wanda, and Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma, among them.
Much of Perry’s appeal comes from his being a throwback generally, and proud of it. His movies are full of plot, emotion, and family conflict. A deep conservative streak has always marked African-American culture, and no small part of Perry’s success has been his ability — and eagerness — to tap into it.
If cross-dressing has helped drive Perry’s career, another kind of cross may help widen his popularity beyond African-American audiences. Later this year, he’s set to succeed Morgan Freeman on screen as James Patterson’s detective hero Alex Cross. Why isn’t the hardest-working and highest-paid man in show business also the most widely known? That’s a mystery Alex Cross might help Tyler Perry solve.