The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

This Christmas (2007)

Yow. Yesterday’s post was a bit more arcane than I’d intended. Sorry about that. It makes me think, however, that the terminology I’m creating to describe my current internal territory might be an interesting thing in and of itself. If I were to create a glossary of those terms, and include in that glossary current “real world” terminology to support it, it might make an interesting non-linear guide to this stuff. If its all hyperlinked together, and each entry has enough detail…

Hmm. Just looking for the right way to express these things.
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In “Seven Secrets,” which I hope to start early next year, instead of doing the standard essay on each of the topics, I thought it might be more interesting to have a series of seven interlinked mini-biographies, each of them looking at my life from a different direction, speaking to the whys and hows of the journey I’ve been on. Some of the stories might overlap a bit, but I thought that it might provide a kind of holographic window into the process, and be more useful and interesting. In other words, what was my motivation, what things did I try, where did I find the information, how did I experiment with it, why do I believe it works? Sort of along that line. Full instructions and resources, of course. Does that sound interesting?
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Saw “This Christmas” yesterday with Tananarive. It’s the first movie to ride the Tyler Perry wave of success. For those who don’t know, Tyler Perry is a Playwright who mounted morality fables starring “Madea”, the matriarch of a huge black family—played by Perry in drag. Fabulously successful, mounted in black churches across the country and on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” Perry started videoing the plays, and selling the videos. More money poured in. Hollywood finally took notice, and released “Madea’s Family Reunion” , which cost about 10 million to make, and grossed 63 million. This is, by the way, just about the outside amount of money a “black” movie can make without crossing over to white audiences. And trust me: white audiences didn’t get it. The films are broad, simplistic, farcical, and deal with cheating abusive husbands being physically assaulted, impossibly wise elder black women, Churches functioning as the spiritual center of community in ways one seldom sees in mainstream Hollywood, and a yearning for love so deep it becomes religious faith. Often overwritten, floridly acted, and stagy, ALL of his movies have made bank, even as white critics pretty much spit on them. Some of this saliva is deserved, some of it is ignorance…and I think that just a little of it is fear.

Well, “This Christmas,” made for maybe 13 million dollars and dealing with Tyler Perry-ish issues while providing greater polish and professionalism than Perry has ever brought to the screen, created by a network of black (mostly) actors like Regina King and Delroy Lindo taking Executive Producer back-end money rather than their usual upfront, has in fourteen days earned 36 million dollars. It earned back its cost in the first weekend. I watched this film about a family Christmas pretty cynically, up until the moment when the extended family’s baby brother got on stage at a nightclub to reveal a hidden, forbidden talent—the ability to sing. Mom doesn’t want her children in the arts—that’s what ripped up her own marriage. And Baby (he is actually called) tears up Amateur night with his brothers and sisters “accidentally” sitting in the club to hear. It is a manipulative, cheesy moment…and dammit, it works. They had me at hello. I give it a "B+" when taking context into account. Maybe an "A+" if I think about it enough. But measured purely as a movie? Probably a "C".
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What Tananarive and I are calling the “Tyler Perry effect” has to do with Hollywood realizing that there is money to be made in releasing films that connect realistically to black audiences. The family in “Christmas” is pure Huxtable in their material comforts: and to my knowledge, no one has blinked. No ho’s, only a smidge of hip-hop villainy, no drugs (except alcohol), and everyone speaks The King’s English. And critics across the country can’t understand their popularity.

It’s simple: they don’t get it because they don’t understand the human hunger for seeing a fictionalized mirror of your own trials and tribulations, where there is redemption, love, and faith. They don’t understand how deep it runs…and white audiences who’ve walked out scratching their heads don’t understand it…because they are inundated with an endless supply of such images that reflect them, 24/7/365. They are like food critics who live in the middle of an endless gourmet buffet wondering why a starving man would pick a peanut-butter sandwich off the ground.

And they’ve “seen this before” so many times! Yes. With white faces. On every episode of “Leave It To Beaver.” And if you look at the commonality of such images, and realize that they’ve been continuously successful since the beginning of time, you’ll grasp the hunger. And realize that white audiences are like fish who can’t see the water they swim in.

Just a little while ago, a non-black friend asked me why I worry about, think about, agonize about trying to find ways to present strong black images in my work. Why not just have black characters as supporting figures in dramas with whites front and center? You know, like “The Lone Ranger” used Tonto. Would that be so bad? I was so baffled by my friend’s blindness that I couldn’t even think of an answer.

Hollywood…and critics…and white audiences won’t get the Tyler Perry phenomenon for a long time. But…if enough black actors can toil in white films, and then roll their money into small features that continue to profit, then they will develop black writers and directors. It’s a numbers game. Create a hundred of these, and a genius will arise, someone with the vision to create a film that is so universal and innovative that it both pleases the core audience, and draws the mainstream white audience because of its sheer humanity. And some of those movies will be full-spectrum humanity: complete with sexuality.

So I see the pincer forming: America becoming browner. Actors like Will Smith, voted 5th smartest man in Hollywood, making his blockbusters and anchoring so much good Will to his films that he might one day afford to actually have a love scene without killing his box office. Denzel zig-zagging between mainstream “big” movies where he must be sexless (“American Gangster”) and small movies where he can have a libido…until one day the audience is so confused they accidentally line up for the wrong one. And small movies funded by the skills and hearts of an army of actors doing the “Hollywood Shuffle” and quietly doing their own thing…and convincing Hollywood by their profits to distribute their films through the channels controlled by Multi-National corporate media (the only way to get across that 100 million mark)…and powerful enough to tell clueless executives to keep HANDS OFF and numerous enough that the untalented can fail without dragging down the gifted with them.

And all of this, of course, is not and never has been about the images on the screen. It is about what they imply: a black middle class stable enough to send their sons and daughters to the high-level colleges where the skills can be learned. Wealthy enough to afford sons and daughters who act and direct and write rather than work in Dad’s dry cleaners, or get law degrees, to turn down scholarships to MIT (as I believe Will Smith did.) White audiences willing to view black family life as “normal” without fearing that, if blacks are like whites, what does that imply about the way America treated them for 400 years? White directors, writers, and producers who know enough black people to lose their fear and distrust and share their knowledge and contacts…

Young black men who can see role models of responsibility and courage and intelligence and sensuality and power on screen, the new Theater of the Mind. Young black women who can see that they needn’t “settle” for painful relationships just because so many of their men have been so phenomenally damaged by 400 years of assault on that core male energy that it’s become chaotic WAY out of statistical representation. That both sides can see how love, and faith, and hard work, and a blessed sense of humor can keep families together.

I see something happening here, and it is incredibly heartening. IF we are all basically the same, as I believe. If blacks are not intellectually inferior, and if whites are not moral monsters…we’re going to get through this. The black male sexuality/100 million dollar mark isn’t the wind. It’s the grass bending.

The wind is change.

10 comments:

Pagan Topologist said...

Madea’s Family Reunion is a movie I really, really liked. Are you sure that white people didn't get it? I suspect that most just never thought they would like it enough to see it. Every white person I know who saw it also loved it. There is a marketing problem here, but I do not think there is a cultural lack of understanding for people who actually saw it. (I don't reacll whether I was the only white person in the audience when I saw it or not.)

David Bellamy

Steven Barnes said...

David, I'd LOVE to be wrong about this. I'm responding to critical reviews across the country, and comments posted on web-sites. My sample might be skewed. How many people did you speak to?

Demon Hunter said...

David,
When I went to see several of Tyler's movies in SOUTH CAROLINA, there were plenty of White folks, Hispanics, and gay male couples. I felt as pleased with the audience as I did with the movie. I love it! :*) So, you weren't alone...lol.

Pagan Topologist said...

How many people did you speak to?

Only three or four friends and colleagues, and one student, Steve. I do not know many white people who saw the film; but those who did uniformaly loved it.

Anonymous said...

The theater I saw 'This Christmas' at after thanksgiving was a 50/50 mix AFAIK of blacks and whites.

And it was packed(80% full 100+ people) and folks really seemed to enjoy it.

Overall I give it on a scale 1-10 a 8. Good story, direction, pacing and actors.

Rodger

Ungers said...

Orson Scott Card likes Tyler Perry too - check out his review: http://www.hatrack.com/osc/reviews/everything/2007-10-21.shtml

Steven Barnes said...

I read Card's article, and thought it really insightful, save for his ranting against the Left, and his rather myopic apparent belief that most racism resides there. I really enjoyed his analysis of why critics fail to connect with Perry's work. He's a very smart man with a sharp eye.

Anonymous said...

Steve: I think you will find that there is a growing hunger for anything showing positive healthy emotions like madeas family reunion. hollywood has its own subculture one that doesnt neccessarily "get" alot of what real people want. Yes there will always be money made playing to the lowest base parts of our natures but the real blockbusters have always put hollywood on its ear. Passion, starwars, titanic. maybe there hasnt been a movie with a black actor having sex reach the 100 million mark but its coming.

Write4Him said...

Steven,
Thanks so much for reminding me to go see this movie. I've been so boggled down with work that I totally forgot about it. I'm a writer to, and have a couple major projects due. But I will make time to see this movie. The latest one I've seen was Tyler's "Why Did I Get Married?" Loved it! Loved it! Loved it!

Terri

Write4Him said...

Steven,
Thanks so much for reminding me to go see this movie. I've been so boggled down with work that I totally forgot about it. I'm a writer to, and have a couple major projects due. But I will make time to see this movie. The latest one I've seen was Tyler's "Why Did I Get Married?" Loved it! Loved it! Loved it!

Terri