On Sunday, October 25, 2009, the American television newsmagazine 60 Minutes profiled writer Tyler Perry.
Byron Pitts was the correspondent.
I’ve posted twice before about this:
Now I’m providing a hand-made transcript with screensnaps for posterity.
The words of correspondent Byron Pitts are in italics.
What filmmaker has had five movies open number one at the box office in the last four years?
Spielberg? Tarantino? Scorcese?
This record belongs to Tyler Perry, one of the biggest names in the movie business.
Yet most Americans have never heard of him.
His eight films have grossed more than four-hundred eighteen million dollars, one of the highest average grosses for film in the industry.
And they’re just part of Perry’s multi-million-dollar entertainment empire.
What’s made Tyler Perry guaranteed box office gold is his devoted audience.
Largely African-American, church-going, working-class, and female.
Long ignored by Hollywood, they come to see something they can’t get anywhere else: Inspirational stories about people like themselves.
And to laugh at characters like this:
“Go in that room and take your medicine. You know you crazy as hell when you don’t take it.”
The gun-toting, wise-cracking grandmother played by Tyler Perry himself: Madea.
“My soul cries out Halleju-yer. Thank God for saving me.”
Madea is a cross between my mother and my aunt. She’s the type of grandmother that was on every corner when I was growing up. She smoked, she walked out of the house with her curlers and a Mu-Mu, and she watched everybody’s kids — she didn’t take no crap. She’s a strong figure where I come from — in my part of the African-American community — and I say that because I’m sure that there are some other parts of the African-American community that may be looking at me now going, “Who does he think he’s speaking of?” But, for
me, this woman was very, very — (chuckles) — very, very visible.
That’s what Tyler Perry’s work is all about: Reflecting a world his audience relates to. And they show up in droves.
“You’re heard of the Horse Whisperer? I’m the Kid Whisperer.”
It’s been written that Madea is one of the Top Ten Grossing Women Actresses in the country.
They weren’t serious when they wrote that. Come on. Come on.
But Madea’s done well. She’s done well by you.
Yeah, she has. She has.
So have his other popular characters, like the flamboyant Mr. Brown.
“I’m Leroy Brown.”
“My friends call me Leroy Brown and you can just call me –”
“– Leroy Brown?”
“Yeah! Yeah! How you know?”
But it’s not just comedy. Perry’s work is a gumbo of medodrama, social commentary, and inspiration.
“You got the strength God gave us women to survive — you just ain’t tapped into it yet.”
It’s a formula. One that intentionally targets women.
You’re always going to see a person of faith. Nine times out of ten it’ll be a woman who has problems, has lost faith or lost her way. There’s always going to be a moment of redemption somewhere for someone.
And then there are the grittier, darker elements. The violence — especially directed at women and children.
Sex and child abuse, prostitution, and drug use.
But there’s always a fairy-tale ending: A happy marriage, a reconciliation.
Often delivered with a dose of Gospel music.
Although Perry’s themes are universal, he’s not widely known outside of his niche audience.
The average American has no idea who you are. How is that possible?
I’ll tell you how it’s possible. There’s thing great thing called the Chitlin Circuit which I started my shows on. And, back in the day, when Ray Charles and Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington — they couldn’t get into white establishments. So they went on this Circuit and toured. They were huge stars in their own community, you know. And that’s pretty much my same story. I was able to build and have this amazing career among my own people — but outside of that, not a lot of people knew who I was.
Tyler Perry, superstar of the Chitlin Ciruit.
(Laughs) Yeah. Superstar of the Chitlin Ciruit. I’ll take that.
You realize what a superstar he is and how strongly the audience connects to him when he appears on stage after a performance of one of his plays. Their reaction gives you a sense of how passionate they are about him.
You make me nervous. Sit down.
But he didn’t always get this kind of reaction.
He got his start in theater, writing, directing and producing plays. His first production — a gospel musical staged in Atlanta in 1992 — bombed.
But he kept writing and staging new plays, cultivating his audience.
By the late 90s, they were selling out across the country, making big money — more than seventy-five million dollars.
Perry’s goal? Turn those shows into movies.
Hollywood’s reaction? Get lost!
They didn’t open the door. And I had to cut a hole in the window to get in.
That’s what you did?
Oh yeah, man. You close the door on me and tell me I can’t, I’ll find a way to get in, yeah.
He found his way in by setting up shop in Atlanta in 2004, where he made his first film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, using his own money.
He who has the gold, makes the rules. If somebody else is going to give you the money, then they’re going to be in control. They’re going to own it. They’re going to tell you how it goes, they’ll give you notes, give you changes. I wasn’t willing to do that, so there was no other option for me.
Diary debuted at number one in 2005 — stunning Hollywood.
Perry’s been surprising Hollywood ever since — doing it his way.
He writes, directs, and produces his movies.
And all eight of them have been major hits, including his latest, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, which opened number one at the box office in September.
This is your dream?
Yeah. Yeah. One of them. Whatever.
This is Tyler Perry Studios. Thirty-one acres of movie and television production facilities, one of the largest independently-owned studios outside of Hollywood. It opened last October. Financed by Perry himself, with the profits he’s made from his productions. It’s Perry’s multi-million-dollar magic kingdom.
This is the backlot. And I named it thirty-fourth street — as in Miracle on 34th Street.
He makes all of his films here, releasing two a year and he employs as many as four-hundred people.
That’s the Cicely Tyson Stage next to it.
It has five soundstages, a gym, even a Chapel.
This is wardrobe.
So that’s Madea. That’s where she lives between movies.
When he’s not making movies, this relentless multi-tasker is running his two hit sitcoms on TBS: House of Pain and Meet the Browns.
Hit him hard. Hit him hard, really.
He has total creative control. And he owns everything he makes.
And we cut. Very good. Thanks a lot. I’m out of here.
Tyler Perry’s huge success has brought him power, and even comparisons to Oprah, his friend and mentor. They’ve teamed up to Executive Produce Precious, a film about an urban teenaged mother battling abuse and illiteracy, which opens in November.
Oprah: Do not play him small. Because he is not just some lucky rich Negro turned Black man. He is not. To be able to take what he saw as an opportunity to reach a group of people and to turn that into this multi-million — soon to be multi-billion — dollar enterprise is what everybody else is trying to do.
What’s the connection you think Tyler Perry has with African-American women?
Oprah: Well first of all, I think he grew up being raised by strong black women and so much of what he does is really in celebration of that. I think that’s what Madea really is — a compilation of, you know, all those strong black women that I know and maybe you do too. And so the reason it works is because people see themselves.
This is it. This is my universe.
Perry says he’s writing what he knows. Writing where he comes from. He grew up working-class in this tough New Orleans neighborhood.
And my heart is racing just being here. Isn’t that crazy?
I don’t have good memories here at all.
But it’s those memories — both good and bad — that have inspired much of his work.
Mr. James is still sitting on the porch. He’s watching everything. “You know that boy was over there with that girl last night.”
That sounds like one of your characters.
Man, listen, are you kidding me?
We met two neighbors who reminded us an awful lot of a certain grandmother.
These are the kind of women I grew up with.
Woman: Oh yes — and Christian women. Christian women!
Christian women with guns! And people wonder where Madea came from.
We crossed the street to where he used to live and the pain of his past came back.
This is where I grew up. And I have not been in this house in years.
In this house, Perry says, his father, Emmett, repeatedly beat him and his mother, Maxine.
He described one time when his father whipped him with a cord until the skin came off his back. And told us when his father wasn’t beating him, he was belittling him.
Your father used to warn your mother about you.
Yeah. One day I would make her cry. ’cause she would try to protect me. From him. “What the [BLEEP] you protecting him for? What are you protecting this boy. [BLEEP] this boy ain’t gonna be [BLEEP]. One day he gonna make you cry.” So.
He brought us out back.
Showed us the cubbyhole where he would escape from his father’s abuse.
This was my hideout. My safe place, you know?
When it got too much, you’d go in here?
Yeah. Yeah. I spent like all day in there. So. I had a door there, so I could go in … and … close myself up, you know, and be OK. For a minute. Yeah.
Your father … it sounds like still makes you … can still make you feel like that little boy. Now how is that possible?
You’d have to walk that road. And be that little boy. A lot of it I’ve … (sighs) … I’ve put out of my mind because it’s too … so horrific and so painful that had I not … and that’s where my imagination was born. As he was losing it and saying all those things, it was … I could absolutely be there in that room with him at the top of his lungs and go somewhere else in my head.
His faith and his mother, he says, saved him.
Sunday mornings she’d take me to Church. And this is the only time I saw her smile and happy, so I wanted to know the God, this Christ, that made my mother smile so much.
Perry says he’s forgiven his father and come to terms with the abuse.
This is what happens. You let it destroy you or you take it and you use it. I chose to use it and I chose to put it in my work, and I choose to have it touch and make people understand it.
Yet there are some who don’t understand Perry’s work and dismiss it — many of them African-Americans. They find characters like Madea and Mr. Brown demeaning caricatures, racial stereotypes.
Spike Lee has said, and I quote, “I think there’s a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery. I see ads for Meet the Browns and House of Pain and I’m scratching my head. We got a Black President and we’re going back. The image is troubling and it hearkens back to Amos and Andy.” He’s talking about you.
I would love to read that to my fanbase. Let me tell you what Madea, Brown — all these characters are, are bait. Disarming, charming, make-you-laugh bait. So I can slap Madea in something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family — any of those things, you know?
So… yeah, that thing … you know that pisses me off, it really does, because …
I can tell.
Yeah. It’s so insulting. It’s attitudes like that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist and that’s why there’s no material speaking to them, speaking to us.