Northwestern tackles the career (and controversies) of Tyler Perry

There are no sacred cows on the NBC sitcom "30 Rock." The show happily skewers its own network along with any number of pop-culture phenomena, and last week's episode was no different, with a running joke aimed squarely in the direction of Tyler Perry, featuring scenes from a movie (must I say it? fictitious!) called "Tracy Jordan's Aunt Phatso Goes to the Hospital Goes to Jail."

Aunt Phatso, of course, is a satirical version of Madea, the straight-talking, gun-toting grandma with the oversized bosoms who has become the bedrock of Perry's creative output as an actor, writer and director. Few characters of the past decade have become as iconic — or as divisive.

Perry's rise as a Hollywood power broker is one of the great stories of modern media, and it happens to be the topic of a daylong series of events at Northwestern University on Wednesday (dubbed Madea's Big Scholarly Roundtable) devoted to Perry and his output. There will be post-show discussions after screenings of "Madea's Family Reunion" (2006) at 9:30 a.m. and "The Family That Preys" (2008) at 1 p.m.

But it is the wide-ranging panel discussion that comes at the end of the day where guest speakers (including faculty from Rutgers University and Duke University as well as Northwestern) will tackle the disconnect between the reviews Perry's films receive and the films' hefty box office receipts. Also a key topic for discussion: Perry's unique path to success — and the push-back he has encountered along the way.

Spike Lee is perhaps the most prominent critic, making waves in 2009 when he characterized Perry's work as "coonery and buffoonery." Not long after, Perry responded to those charges on "60 Minutes": "It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people" — black audiences — "do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us."

Of all the criticisms leveled at Perry — and they run the gamut — you don't hear anyone accuse him of lacking savvy. Just recently he signed a deal to create exclusive content for OWN, Oprah Winfrey's struggling cable network. His ability to tap into an audience that was so clearly underserved by Hollywood has led to the kind of commercial success few achieve. And it has happened in less than 10 years, starting with "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" in 2005, Perry's first film (and the only one based on his own script that he wouldn't direct).

"He was already a millionaire when he started making movies," said Miriam Petty when I reached her last week. Petty teaches film and African-American studies at Northwestern, and Madea's Big Scholarly Roundtable is her brainchild. (She is also teaching a class this quarter focused on Perry's work.)

"His career is longer than most people realize," she said. "His work as a playwright and as a producer and actor in plays goes back 10 years before he even started making movies. That's the aspect people often aren't aware of — that Tyler Perry came to Hollywood as someone who had already developed a loyal and very significant following among African-American communities."

Lionsgate signed on for "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" (made for about $5.5 million, and grossing nearly 10 times that amount), and the studio has backed Perry ever since. His upcoming projects include "Single Moms Club," which will have a multi-ethnic cast including Wendi McLendon-Covey of "Bridesmaids," as well as another Madea film, this one Christmas-themed, slated for 2013. Not all his efforts have been met with enthusiasm, particularly when he veers away from what has become his signature style (i.e., his film adaptation of "For Colored Girls"). And it is worth mentioning that his crossover role, starring in "Alex Cross," hasn't attracted the same fan base; the film has grossed only $25 million since it was released last month, well below its $35 million budget.

"We definitely want to talk about him in as close to a 360-degree perspective as possible," said Petty. "I think that he's a really important and significant cultural figure and his works reflect that. I also think there's a lot of interest in the ways that his works reinforce patriarchal norms and gender roles."

Writer Jamilah Lemieux outlined some of those issues in an open letter published a couple of years ago on "I appreciate your commitment to giving black folks jobs in front of and behind the camera. Your films are known for their humor, and they also have positive messages about self-worth, love and respect," she wrote. But she challenged Perry, calling his work "mired with the worst black pathologies and stereotypes. I beg of you, stop dismissing the critics as haters and realize that black people need new stories and new storytellers."

"Even portraying a character like Madea is a very complicated move for someone like Perry," Petty told me. "This is a drag performance and so much of his audience is staunchly Christian. It's the question of: Is there a contradiction there?" In 2010, the cartoonist Aaron McGruder produced a scathing Perry takedown in an episode of his animated series "The Boondocks," which airs on the Cartoon Network. "There's this tension of, what does it mean that Tyler Perry is putting on a dress?" said Petty. "So part of reconciling that tension has been speculating about Tyler Perry's sexuality."

Madea — a character who can be as endearing as she is scarily out-of-control — will likely go down as Perry's strongest legacy, in front of the camera at least. "There's humor in Madea that's very layered and sly because she's speaking specifically to Perry's target audience in ways that others aren't going to hear," said Petty. "She's making references to African-American culture and in particular references to the film version of 'A Color Purple.' Quoting that movie: 'All my life I had to fight!' So I think that's part of the work that I enjoy the most. There's a trickster aspect to it that I really enjoy.

"What I struggle with the most," she said, "are the rigid gender roles. That even someone like Madea, who does whatever the hell she wants, nevertheless prescribes a rigid gender formation for the men and women she attempts to help."

Madea's Big Scholarly Roundtable takes place 5 p.m. Wednesday at Northwestern University's Block Cinema. For info about the panel discussion (and the two film screenings earlier in the day) go to

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