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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spike Lee vs. Madea

If you find it impossible to keep track of all of the celebrity feuds, let me draw your attention to one that's gained my attention - that between director Spike Lee and Madea, actually the creative spirit behind Madea, actor/director/empire builder Tyler Perry. Spike Lee has accused Tyler Perry of peddling the worst in racist stereotypes of African American culture, calling Perry's Madea movies tantamount to the old "Amos and Andy" routines. And at a recent press conference to promote the latest installment of Madea's misadventures, when asked about the criticisms leveled against him by Lee, Perry answered, "Spike can go straight to hell!!" Not the level of discourse you'd expect from a man who has Oprah on speed dial!

The war of words between the two directors has placed many people on the fence. As the box office receipts tell it, audiences have a soft spot for Tyler Perry's movies. His films have grossed half a billion dollars, a testament to the loyal, mostly African American audience who flock to his films. But while Perry spins hard knocks inside of sentimental sweetness, Spike Lee has always been more art-house in his approach to the dilemmas of everyday existence for African Americans. Perry will give you a lump in your throat, but Lee will give you a bump on your head. Tyler Perry writes in the language of R&B, while Lee gives you a symphonic tone poem fused with Charlie Mingus.

I grew up watching Spike Lee's films. They were events and my generation remembers the day that we waited in line to see Do the Right Thing, School Daze, and Jungle Fever. His films made us angry, yes, but they also made us think about race in a way that was different from how our parents thought of it. He managed to make poetry out of the violence and frustration of a generation. When you left the theater after a Spike Lee movie, you felt introspective and reflective. There was no happy Hollywood ending, there was only the beginning of a new day. We'd spend hours in the dorms dissecting his films, looking for the moral and ethical threads that tied the characters together, and confronting the myriad ambiguities that Lee seemed to throw in our path at every turn.

I first learned about Tyler Perry at the hair salon when someone popped in a bootlegged performance of one of his stage plays (back in the days before camera phones and YouTube, the bootlegged concert tape was how things went viral!). The whole shop erupted in squeals of laughter and "oh no he didn'ts".  Tuning in to Black radio stations, I'd hear the commercials blaring the upcoming performances of the latest Tyler Perry production, but I was resistant to his charms. I held out until 2001 when Diary of a Mad Black Woman hit theaters and my mother insisted that I see it with her, my sister, and the aunties. It was the craziest roller coaster I'd ever ridden, from a pot-smoking, gun-toting, mumu-wearing six-feet-tall transvestite named Madea to the final scene ripped straight out of An Officer and a Gentleman, with the Richard Gere character swapped out for the hunky Shemar Moore. I was hooked - but I had to keep my affections on the down-low.

Both of these men tell the truth about the African American experience because there isn't just one Black experience. If the British, with their nobility, can still make room for the low-budget sci-fi world of Doctor Who and the dirty-minded slapstick of Benny Hill, then why can't I have my Spike Lee and my Tyler Perry? If the French, with their haute couture and haute cuisine can barely suppress a chuckle when confronted with the antics of Jerry Lewis, then why can't I have a little Brooklyn and the ATL?? And if Utah's biggest export of Donnie and Marie can be both a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll, then I declare that both Mr. Lee and Mr. Perry have dual citizenship in my heart and head. There - case closed! I'm just saying:)

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