Tyler Perry, an Atlanta-based writer, producer, and performer, is one of the most commercially successful African American filmmakers in history. Tyler Perry Studios, which opened in Atlanta in 2008, is the first major film studio in the nation to be owned by an African American. Perry is best known for his signature character, Madea, whom he has portrayed in both stage plays and films.
Emmitt Perry Jr. was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 14, 1969, to Maxine and Emmitt Perry. He changed his first name to Tyler at age sixteen to dissociate himself from his abusive father. Perry grew up in poverty and did not complete high school, although he did later earn his General Education Development (GED) degree. As a young adult he drifted from job to job for several years. Then in 1992, while watching Oprah Winfrey’s daily talk show, Perry heard the advice that he credits with turning around his career and life. Winfrey told her audience that writing down one’s life experiences could be therapeutic. Taking her words to heart, Perry began to keep a diary, which inspired his first play, I Know I’ve Been Changed.
Later that year Perry moved from New Orleans to Atlanta. Having saved $12,000, he rented out the 14th Street Playhouse, where he directed, produced, promoted, and starred in I Know I’ve Been Changed. Highly autobiographical, the play focuses on the complex and lasting effects of child abuse. Despite its sincerity, the show was a commercial failure—a total of thirty people attended during the weekend performances. After several other unsuccessful attempts to stage the play, Perry arranged for what he thought was a final run in 1998 at the House of Blues in Atlanta. This time, however, the play sold out eight times. Two weeks later, Perry moved the show to the famous Fox Theatre, where nearly 9,000 people attended.
In 1999 Perry collaborated with televangelist and best-selling author Bishop T. D. Jakes on a theatrical adaptation of Jakes’s self-help novel Woman, Thou Art Loosed (1993). Capturing the powerful effects of domestic abuse, the play was an immediate success, grossing more than $5 million within five months. (The book was later adapted by screenwriters Stan Foster and Christine Swanson into a feature film, which was released in 2004.)
In 2000 Perry introduced Madea, the trash-talking, marijuana-smoking, gun-toting grandmother in his play I Can Do Bad All by Myself. Played by Perry himself, Madea is a central character in several of his subsequent plays and films. In 2001 Perry featured her in his play Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and she appears again in the plays Madea’s Family Reunion (2002), Madea’s Class Reunion (2003), and Madea Goes to Jail (2005). While primarily comedic, the Madea franchise also addresses serious issues, such as domestic abuse and drug addiction, and ultimately offers Christianity as an antidote to such problems.
In 2005 Perry’s production company, Tyler Perry Company, teamed up with Lionsgate film studio for Perry’s first feature film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which debuted at number one nationwide. Produced in Atlanta, the film features Perry in three roles, including that of Madea. Subsequent film adaptations of his Madea plays include Madea’s Family Reunion (2006) and Madea Goes to Jail (2009), both of which also opened at number one. In 2006 Perry ventured into publishing. His book, Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life, was a best seller and the winner of two Quill Awards, for Best in Humor and Book of the Year. In 2010 Perry embarked on a national tour with a new stage play, Madea’s Big Happy Family.
Critical responses to Perry’s work have been mixed. Although he is praised by some for his comedic characters, topical content, and simple delivery, others claim that his portrayals of African Americans perpetuate certain problematic traditions and stereotypes. Prominent Black film scholar Donald Bogle, for example, likens Madea to the “old mammy type” of Hollywood films, and film historian Todd Boyd notes that Perry’s “productions demonize educated, successful African Americans,” a mind-set that Boyd traces back to the distinctions made between house and field workers during slavery. Prominent filmmaker Spike Lee has also publicly criticized Perry’s work.
Viola Davis, an actress who starred in Madea Goes to Jail, describes Perryas a “controversial, complicated figure” in the Black community but notes that he is also one of the few filmmakers making movies about African American characters. Still others, including Vicangelo Bulluck of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, applaud Perry for depicting “family values” within the Black community.
In a 2004 interview with Ebony magazine, Perry acknowledged that some critics believe his plays have “set the Black race back some 500 years,” but he insisted that he tries “to build a bridge that marries what’s deemed 'legitimate theater’ and so-called 'chitlin’ circuit theater’ [the derogatory name given to Black segregated theater venues in the Jim Crow South], and I think I’ve done pretty well with that, in bringing people in to enjoy a more elevated level of theater.”
Tyler Perry Studios
In 2006 Perry began to expand his work beyond Madea with the creation of the television comedy series House of Payne. The TBS television network began distributing the show in 2007. Although Madea is a recurring character on the program, she is not the central focus. That same year his feature films Daddy’s Little Girls and Why Did I Get Married opened, followed in 2008 by Meet the Browns and The Family That Preys.
Tyler Perry Studios, the first film studio in the country to be owned by an African American, opened in October 2008. The 200,000-square-foot facility, located in the old Delta Air Lines headquarters in Atlanta, features a soundstage named for Georgia native Ossie Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee. Perry’s streamlined method of filmmaking offers a striking contrast to that of most mainstream Hollywood films: his productions are generally completed much more quickly and with a lower budget, but generate significantly higher returns. Both Essence and Time magazine named him as one of the most influential people of 2008.
In 2009 Perry debuted his second television series, Meet the Browns, on TBS and released the film adaptation of I Can Do Bad All by Myself. That same year he played the role of Admiral Richard Barnett in the feature film Star Trek and served as an executive producer for the film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. The critically acclaimed Precious marked a new direction for Perry, and in 2010 he announced the formation of 34th Street Films, an art-house division of Tyler Perry Studios. The first project for the new venture was Perry’s film adaptation of playwright Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which ran on Broadway from 1976 to 1978.