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A Look At Tyler Perry's Complicated Legacy


Tyler Perry won an honorary Oscar this week. He's a world-famous producer, director, actor, screenwriter and playwright. But his legacy, even after his win, is still complicated. Noel King spoke with NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans about why.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: In Hollywood, these honorary awards, like the Jean Hersholt, are often seen as a way to spotlight people who might not appear in the competitive categories. But Tyler Perry has also been known as this creator who makes plays, films, TV shows for audiences that have been overlooked by traditional Hollywood - churchgoing Black folks, especially Black women. Now, this material has earned him a large, loyal fan base. But, you know, critics like me look at the stuff and say, it's often predictable. It features troubling stereotypes, like Black men who are always cheating, Black women who are often abused for making unconventional life choices. And he makes these things very quickly, which can sometimes affect their quality.


I was looking - when I was researching for this interview, I went on Amazon to see if anybody had written, like, an authoritative Tyler Perry biography. I found no fewer than three books about him. He has an interesting early career and early life. Tell us about that.

DEGGANS: Sure. So he got his start by writing these musical plays that were centered on Black characters, and they turned on these Christian themes of forgiveness and redemption. And he financed the first one with his life savings. You know, they were called gospel plays. And that's where he invented this classic character that he played in a wig and a dress, the auntie-type character Madea. So he used the profits from those plays to fund his first movie, "Diary Of A Mad Black Woman." And then over the years, he just expanded and wrote more films, performed in more films, then moved into TV shows.

And the upside is that these movies and TV shows are featuring Black performers who might not get to be leads in mainstream Hollywood. But he also has these limitations, I think, as a director and a writer that he resists acknowledging because what he does resonates with his audience so well.

KING: What are the limitations? What is some of the criticism about?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, he famously writes almost everything that he's involved with, you know, directly. And on Instagram last year, he posted this short video of a table that was just piled with all these scripts that he had written. And we even have a little snippet of what he said while that footage was playing on that Instagram post. Let's check it out.


TYLER PERRY: I have no writer's room. Nobody writes any of my work. I write it all - work ethic.

KING: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: And it is an incredible work ethic. And, you know, Perry has said that he's got projects coming up that will have writers' rooms. But, you know, critics note that by writing everything, he's limiting the ability for other Black writers to work with him and develop their careers. And if he had other people helping him, he might improve his scripts and get a wider range of perspectives, particularly when he's writing about Black women.

KING: You can't really talk about a filmmaker winning an Oscar, even an honorary Oscar, without then thinking about what their legacy will be. What do you think Tyler Perry's legacy ultimately will be in the film industry?

DEGGANS: He's achieved some incredible things in show business. I've been to his 330-acre studio in Atlanta, where there are tons of standing sets and buildings, allowing him to film virtually whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And he achieved it by retaining ownership and control over his projects, which work because he knows his audience, and he speaks directly to them. I just think his future challenge is going to be to up his game artistically so that his creative achievements match his financial success.

KING: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.

DEGGANS: Yeah, thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA AND MATT MAY'S "EL SOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.