After Madea, Tyler Perry Builds a New Kingdom

ATLANTA — Tyler Perry hears voices in his head, and they have made him wildly popular, divisive and very rich.

The voices created the Paynes, the Browns, the Cryers and countless other characters and caricatures that peopled Perry’s plays, movies and television series. And they unleashed his golden goose, Madea, the smack-talking, purse-wielding black Southern matriarch that Perry depicted, in tent dresses and a pendulous prosthetic bosom, in dozens of plays and films before retiring the character earlier this year.

Now, with Madea behind him — he was fed up with playing her — Perry’s cultural legacy remains complex, ever evolving, and dependent on what he does next. In the short term, that means opening sprawling new studios here with a big, glittery party this weekend. The studios will serve as the home for an astonishing six new shows, all of which he has written and will direct — part of a major content deal with Viacom.

Is he sacrificing quality for quantity? Perry said he was not aspiring to great artistry. “It’s a business,” he told me. “And key in this business is to deliver to this audience, to superserve them and give them everything they want that you can give them.”

In many ways, Perry still feels like the most successful mogul Hollywood has ever ignored.

“If I was a white man and had done these things, and had this success, they would have had a much different reaction to me,” Perry said one late September day, sitting in his huge, plush office in the Dream Building, the center of the new studios south of downtown. “No one, black or white, has been able to do what I’ve been able to do.”

Perry started out creating plays for black audiences, moving from stage to screen and amassing more than $1 billion in ticket sales so far. His ballooning fortune and fame has been met with criticism that he peddles, as the writer Jamilah Lemieux put it in 2009, “buffoonish, emasculated black men and crass, sassy black women.”

Perry’s response now is the same as it was then: that his millions of ardent fans would disagree. “What all of that tells me is my black, my version of my stories, my experiences and my culture are not relevant to some of the critics and some of those people that don’t understand it and don’t like it,” he said.

Undisputed is his employment of scores of black actors, particularly women, who struggled to find work in mainstream Hollywood, an achievement Perry deftly referenced in June when he collected the Ultimate Icon Award at the BET honors.

Hollywood can talk about #OscarsSoWhite, he told the crowd, but “I’ll be down in Atlanta, building my own, because what I know for sure is that if I could just build this table God will prepare it for me in the presence of my enemies.”

The crowd leapt to its feet, the performer Lizzo among them. It was a measure of the reverence for Perry’s achievements, and the recent warmer embrace of his work. Spike Lee, who once infamously described Perry’s work using a racial slur, has since distanced himself from that comment. (For what it’s worth, aside from “Inside Man,” Perry told me, “there’s not a lot of Spike Lee films that I get or understand.”) And Perry is no longer one of the very few black voices in film and television. The rise of power brokers like Ava DuVernay, Donald Glover and Issa Rae, Perry said, has “lifted all of the pressure.”

Many of the stories Perry tells adhere to his tried-and-true formula; threaded with moralizing, they confront tough issues like abuse before shifting to levity, all of which proved deeply cathartic for audiences, and for Perry himself.

Perry grew up in New Orleans with an abusive father, and was sexually molested by several adults. To cope, he learned to slip into a rich, imaginary world. “It would bring me so much joy, no matter what was going on with me as a kid,” he said.

It was only recently that Perry realized that he goes to that same place to write. “I literally have to push them out of my head to go on to the next show, to make them stop talking,” he said.

He wrote all six new Viacom shows, along with a new season of “The Haves and the Have Nots,” for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network — 200 episodes in all — in six months. The writing overlapped with the 43-city Madea farewell tour earlier this year, and I caught a glimpse of what that workload looked like at Radio City Music Hall in May.

A capacity crowd cheered Perry’s longtime castmates, Tamela Mann, Cassi Davis and David Mann, reserving the biggest whoops for Madea herself. Backstage, Perry spent every moment at his laptop, in full Madea regalia, working on one of the new Viacom shows, typing as if possessed. “I’m on autopilot,” he told me. He stopped to issue stage directions, punk the other actors by messing with their props, and, of course, to star in the show. He spent exactly zero seconds in repose.

This voraciousness was why he left his exclusive deal with OWN in 2017, he said, to sign with Viacom, which owns Paramount, his new distributor, and BET. Perry sought limitlessness, and felt the bandwidth at OWN was too narrow. He said he and Winfrey, who, along with Cicely Tyson, is a godparent to his 4-year-old son, remain close. Both women are expected to attend the opening party for his new studios, which might more accurately be described as a kingdom.

They occupy 330 rolling acres of a decommissioned Army base that Perry bought for $30 million in 2015, after outgrowing smaller studios six miles away. Some $250 million went into restoring the new site’s stately 19th-century homes, erecting soundstages named for black luminaries, and building production offices and sets. While the unveiling is this weekend, Perry has produced his shows and movies here for a few years, leasing out space to productions like “Black Panther” and “The Walking Dead.”

There have been calls for films and television shows to boycott Georgia, a major production hub, in protest of the state’s highly restrictive law ruling out abortions once doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat. Perry said his heavy investment here made it impossible for him to leave.

He also does not want to. Perry said he did not agree with the law. “I don’t think it’s a man’s place to tell a woman what she should do with her reproductive organs,” he said. But he also opposes a boycott, saying many people holding the state’s tens of thousands of film and television jobs are against the new law too, and that their votes “can change a whole election.”

He recently turned 50, and once the party and the shows and movies he is committed to making are behind him, he plans to reassess what to do next.

For several emerging black playwrights, his influence remains as potent and divisive as ever. In the Off Broadway show “A Strange Loop” this year, the playwright Michael R. Jackson described Perry’s work as worse for black people than diabetes. Yet Jeremy O. Harris, who wrote “Slave Play,” now on Broadway, has described Perry as “the country’s most successful experimental playwright,” and Jordan E. Cooper, who wrote “Ain’t No Mo’,” another Off Broadway show from earlier in the year, said growing up watching DVDs of Perry’s plays inspired him to go into theater.

“All black people used to love Tyler Perry until white people found out about Tyler Perry, and then it was ‘Oh no, he is presenting us with this image and that image,’” Cooper said. “But Tyler’s going to be Tyler. And that’s where the rest of us need to take the baton and do our own thing.”

Cara Buckley is a culture reporter who covers bias and equity in Hollywood, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @caraNYT Facebook

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