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Director Tyler Perry Confronts His Critics

Love 'em or hate 'em, every one of Tyler Perry's movies about middle-class African Americans has been a box-office smash. With limited budgets for marketing and promotion, the films have filled a niche in ways that no one could have predicted. Hell, even his half-baked TV show, House of Payne, has become a hit after a rocky start.

And yet, the awards and accolades have been slow to follow. During a recent promotional trip through Cleveland, Perry admitted that the lack of critical support started to get to him in the past couple of years and contributed to fueling the frustration and betrayal at the core of his new film, The Family That Preys, which opens Friday.

"From 1998 to 2004, I would walk down the street and was really famous with black people and couldn't go anywhere without getting high fives and support and cheers," says Perry one morning from a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton. Casually dressed in jeans and an Atlanta Braves baseball cap, Perry forthrightly answered questions from a roundtable of reporters for about half an hour.

"Then I get to Hollywood and start doing films, and, for the first time, I start experiencing a lot of negativity," he continues. "I was really disturbed by it. I wasn't sure I wanted to continue in front. It was a coward's way of thinking."

He says he seriously contemplated stepping out of the limelight and working behind the scenes in order to shield himself from movie reviewers. "Critics don't understand my movies," he admits. "That's why I stopped screening for them."

Critics were allowed to see The Family That Preys in advance on the condition that they wouldn't publish any reviews prior to its release. Perry attended the screening at Valley View Cinemas himself, marking the first time he's watched the movie with a real audience, and there was enough security on hand to rival a presidential debate.

At the risk of venturing into "review" territory, we'll just say the movie features the usual quotient of soap-opera-like drama you'd associate with a Perry product. There's infidelity and double-crossing as a greedy son (Cole Hauser) tries to wrest control of the family business from his altruistic mother (Kathy Bates). The movie's redeeming quality comes from the interaction between the characters played by Bates and Alfre Woodard. The two actresses are simply superb together, respectively playing a rich white woman who wants to control her money-hungry son and an African-American diner owner who has come to terms with her modest lifestyle.

The film attempts to show a clash of two worlds: those of a rich white family and a lower middle-class African American family. That's something Perry - who dropped out of high school and lived out of his car as he penned his first play - knows very well at this point in his career.

"I was never pessimistic," he says of his humble beginnings, which found him working a series of odd jobs just to make ends meet. "I was an angry kid. I would fight and steal and stab or whatever I needed to do. If you try to hurt me, I could hurt you better. Something in me always said there is more and it's going to be OK. When your mother is telling you that you can't make it and your teacher is telling you that you can't make it, you just can't believe them."

If there's a lesson to be learned from the movie, it's simply that friends often trump family when it comes to bonds that can't be broken. It's something Perry says he's learned firsthand.

"Even in my own family, I have members who try to prey on me," he says. "You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family."

jniesel@clevescene.com

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