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The Hollywood Gospel According to Tyler Perry

He's rich, religious -- and he's proved studio execs wrong about the black movie audience.

February 19, 2006|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Tyler Perry has a story he likes to tell about Hollywood being out of touch with African Americans.

Back in 2002, when the comedian and playwright made the rounds at the major studios to pitch film projects based on his gospel-inspired act, people didn't know what to make of him. He remembers one Paramount Pictures executive even telling him: "Black people who go to church don't go to the movies."

Perry set out to prove that executive wrong. First, he partly bankrolled an independent feature film version of one of his plays, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman." Then, to motivate his fans to go see it, the charismatic, 6-foot-5 Christian incorporated the white studio exec's assessment of blacks' moviegoing habits into his live act.

"You should've heard the roar of these thousands of black people in the room," Perry said, remembering the typical reaction at his sold-out 3,000-seat venues. "They were fired up and angry and ready to go to the movies."

What happened next made Hollywood sit up and take notice: "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," which was made for $5.4 million, opened last February and grossed more than $50 million in theaters (not to mention selling 3.3 million units on DVD). Its audience was predominantly black. On Friday, almost exactly a year after "Diary's" debut, Perry will release his second feature film, "Madea's Family Reunion." With this movie, which like "Diary" features Perry as a pistol-packing grandma on a mission of redemption, the New Orleans-born auteur is attempting to broaden his reach.

Having shown that black churchgoers can also be filmgoers, Perry -- inspired by the likes of Bill Cosby before him -- is out to introduce himself to mainstream white America.

"What is important to me about this movie is that the stories and messages are for anyone," said Perry, who says a recent test screening drew raves from a white audience near Sacramento. "Anyone who needs to learn about forgiveness ... will enjoy it no matter who they are."

With "Madea," which Perry wrote, produced, directed and stars in, he has finally gotten his Hollywood imprimatur. Lionsgate, the studio that co-financed and distributed "Diary," footed the bill for "Madea" and has committed to Perry's third feature, expected in 2007.

To hear the 36-year-old self-described mogul-in-the-making tell it, "Madea" is just the beginning. With a nod to friend and mentor Oprah Winfrey, Perry -- who has an advice book coming out in April, a television sitcom and an animated series in development and a production studio the size of a city block in the planning stages in Atlanta -- is out to become an entertainment industry franchise.

"He is a force of nature," said John Feltheimer, chief executive of Lionsgate, who admittedly has a stake in that being true. "He speaks with a unique voice to a specific audience. We want to be a partner in everything Tyler does."To hear Perry tell it, he was drawn to inventing stories because his real life was so grim. The third of four children raised in a working-class family, Perry says he was a victim of physical abuse. His father's "answer to everything was to beat it out of you," Perry once told Jet magazine. When he told his mother his dreams of becoming a performer, she discouraged him.

"My mother said to me, 'You are never going to make it, so stop what you're doing,' " he recalled, without bitterness. "That was her way of protecting me."

In the early 1990s, he left New Orleans for Atlanta. After hearing Winfrey talk on her show about the healing power of journal writing, he began putting his childhood experiences on paper. Eventually, the journal entries became inspirational plays.

In those early years, he was so strapped that he lived intermittently in his car. But in 1998, Perry's play about survivors of child abuse, "I Know I've Been Changed," sold out the House of Blues in Atlanta.

Soon he was touring the gospel theater circuit, an African American institution that the civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois had once called theater "for us, by us, about us and near us."

It was during these tours of the South and Midwest that Perry learned the power of word of mouth. He was championed by the faith-based community, whose preachers took to their pulpits and lauded his plays.

Perry's work could be blunt -- it squarely addressed such issues as drug use, spousal abuse and broken families. But much like the ministries themselves, he leavened the hard themes with music and comedy even as his characters embraced the tenets of Christianity: hope, faith and redemption.

Some in the African American community have been critical of Perry, saying he relies on stereotypes for his characters. Moreover, some see Perry's Madea as a caricature, a modern version of the "Mammy" -- a domineering, masculine black woman.

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