Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tyler Perry vs. Spike Lee: How it Could be Good for Them...and Us

There's quite a bit of news and twitter chatter about Tyler Perry's recent apparent dust-up with Spike Lee. At a press conference, Perry said "I'm so sick of hearing about damn Spike Lee. Spike can go straight to hell!"

Most folks have necessarily focused on the part about Perry being "sick of" Lee, and the comment that "Spike can go straight to hell!" Those kind of strong comments understandably make headlines.

It's worth noting a couple of things though. For one, the press conference where Perry made his comments were likely connected to his upcoming movie. Perry was probably responding to a reporter's question about Lee, which is much different than holding a press conference for the sole purpose of discussing Lee's comments. Second and perhaps related, the comments that Lee made about Perry, at least the ones that Perry seems to be referencing, are from 2009, two years ago.

Beyond these things though, I was more interested in the comments that Perry made later in the press conference. He elaborated on his feelings that other groups do not criticize each other as much as black people:
"I've never seen Jewish people attack Seinfeld and say 'this is a stereotype,' I've never seen Italian people attack The Sopranos, I've never seen Jewish people complaining about Mrs. Doubtfire or Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. I never saw it. It's always black people, and this is something that I cannot undo. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois went through the exact same thing; Langston Hughes said that Zora Neale Hurston, the woman who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, was a new version of the 'darkie' because she spoke in a southern dialect and a Southern tone. And I'm sick of it from us; we don't have to worry about anybody else trying to destroy us and take shots because we do it to ourselves.'

First, I was pleased to see Perry alluding to the historical record about differences between black folks and black folks. I'm not surprised that he's aware of that history; given my cultural and intellectual interests, I just always enjoy the shout-outs to black studies in the public and popular discourse.

Now, what I take issue with. For one, Perry's wrong when he suggests there are no critiques among other groups of people. That's false. There are robust and ongoing critiques among all the ethnic groups that Perry mentions. Just because he hasn't followed or seen Jewish people debating Seinfeld or Italians debating the Sopranos doesn't mean those debates and differences don't exist. In fact, they do. 

Second, I am less bothered by debates between Washington and DuBois and then Hughes and Hurston than Perry is. The fact that black people have followed and contributed to the debates between those figures leads me to value the debates and the people even more. Part of what is most memorable and valuable to me about Washington and DuBois relates to the nature of their differences. 

It's worth noting as a side point that Perry somewhat misconstrues Hughes's "darkie" comment in relation to Hurston. Hughes was really making the point that "To many of her white friends, no doubt, she was a perfect darkie."

Hughes and Hurston had at one point been friends but later developed a feud as they were collaborating on a project. Although the "darkie" comment stands out, we shouldn't overlook that Hughes was also making a critique of those "white friends." When we recall Hughes's comment about Hurston then, we shouldn't let those "white friends" off the hook. 

For now though, let's be clear that it wasn't Hurston's dialect and Southern-ness that bothered Hughes. Any glance through Hughes's work reveals that he greatly valued those features of black culture.

But I get Perry's point. He doesn't like what he apparently views as black-on-black critique. I want to suggest though that those debates within and beyond African American culture about the operations, influence, and impact of what might be broadly defined as "race and representation" are actually not so bad.

The debates between Washington and DuBois, between Hughes and Hurston, between Richard Wright and Hurston, between Malcolm and Martin, more recently between Sharpton and West, and all other kinds of folks have helped defined conversations in African American artistic and intellectual discourses. Moreover, we--those of us who have paid close attention--have learned and benefited from the debates. And more importantly, we have benefited from the debates, writings, conversations, and reconsideration that have followed the apparent main debates.

If feelings were hurt in the debates as they seem to be now with Perry, then, ok, that's something. And honestly, there's a part of me that is always sympathetic when folks have their feelings hurt. Full stop.

Matters related to race and representation and, in this case, matters related to how African Americans are portrayed in television and film should have our critical attention. We benefit when leading figures and various other commentators and thinkers are engaged in conversations about the implications of how black folks are presented and projected in the public imagination.

Whatever the case, Perry and Lee will be ok. The publicity surrounding Perry vs. Lee will likely lead Perry fans to go out in even larger numbers to support his movie, which opens this week. And Lee fans will support him even more passionately as a result of Perry's comments. At the box office and bank, at least, both of them will win.

I'm just hoping those of us interested in and affected by the kinds of representations that Perry and Lee present can have some sense of accomplishment as well.

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