The writer, director, producer, and studio head, Tyler Perry, has built an entertainment empire, including one of the industry’s largest coronavirus bubbles—making his work more impactful than ever. This has earned Tyler Perry the Entertainment Innovator as awarded by WSJ. Magazine.
In the interview for WSJ. Magazine’s November Innovators issue, Perry emotionally reflects on his journey, his legacy, and how the low points of 2020 have changed him. So much so that he’s contemplating taking his beloved Madea character out of retirement!
Madea’s retirement “may have been a bit premature, because I had no idea the country was going to fall into this kind of despair and darkness and anxiety. I know what this character’s meant for years: Joy. Pure, simple joy. Laughter. Good wisdom. I’d sit onstage and look out and see 10,000 people laughing and having a good time. And I think that laughter and humor are needed now more than ever.”
By all rights this should have been Tyler Perry’s best summer ever. August was particularly auspicious, given the announcement that one of the entertainment industry’s richest and most prolific multi-hyphenates (actor-writer- director-producer-mogul–studio chief) would receive the Television Academy’s 2020 Governors Award at this year’s Emmys for “his unprecedented achievements in television” and “his commitment to offering opportunities to marginalized communities.”
The first accolade was no surprise, given that Perry, 51, has put out 14 TV series (including House of Payne, The Oval and Sistas) to go along with his 22 movies (among them the lucrative Madea series) and 22 plays. Most of Perry’s works have been produced by his own Tyler Perry Studios, which occupies a 330-acre estate in Atlanta and is one of the country’s largest production studios.
The second citation stems from the fact that the industry’s most innovative empire is owned and operated by a Black man who employs an incredibly diverse group of people to serve a largely Black audience. His projects have generated upward of $2 billion in box office and TV revenue. By September, when Forbes declared Perry a billionaire, he had every opportunity to celebrate. He owns two private islands in the Bahamas and a 1,200-acre spread in Atlanta, where he’s building a 35,000-square- foot mega-mansion.
And yet this summer brought no revelry to “Tylerland,” as his friend Oprah Winfrey calls it. For starters, the coronavirus pandemic ground the studio to a halt in March, leaving productions in purgatory and threatening the livelihoods of 800 full-time staffers, plus the hundreds of vendors and part-timers who rely on the studio. Then came the George Floyd crisis, which both gutted and transformed Perry.
“I’ve seen a fundamental change in him since that time,” Winfrey says. “It literally changed how he emanates as a human being. His whole vibe changed.”
Tyler Perry was presented the Entertainment Innovator award by his friend and fellow boundary-breaker Taraji P. Henson last Wednesday, November 11th as WSJ. Magazine premiered its annual Innovator Awards in a virtual format, which marks the 10th Anniversary celebrating “A Decade of Innovation.” Tyler Perry shows
Here is what Tyler Perry had to say in his WSJ. Magazine’s cover feature…
On how the low points of 2020 changed him
“How could it not? There’ve been plenty of low points,” Perry says, referring to the deaths of his friends Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman. “And then George Floyd for sure. Watching that play out—eight minutes, 46 seconds. Add to that a pandemic, where you’re on lockdown and you could not turn away from cable news. It was definitely beginning to erode my spirit.”
On pushing back against despair with hope
“Here’s what you have to understand,” Perry says. “I work with a lot of Black and brown people. So when you say ‘weighing heavily,’ this is our daily lives. But we have to find a way to keep going and find the strength to fight another day.” He adds: “Hope grows inside of people like me, and it’s very, very hard to kill, because from childhood we were always hoping just for something great.”
“You have to understand where I come from and what I’ve gone through,” he says. “I’ve had to have hope. So even after everything that’s going on in the world—the pandemic and the racial inequality and police brutality—I have to remain hopeful. It lives in me.”
On the lessons his mother taught him about navigating life as a Black man
“I don’t think it’s as difficult for me as it is for Black women,” he says. “But there have been many times when I’ve had to walk into boardrooms and have meetings with white people and, being the only Black face, had to be absolutely careful of how I crafted things, of how I said words, because of the very presence of me towering over these people…. I was taught that very early by my mother: ‘Because you’re tall, and because you’re Black, you’re always going to be seen as a threat—to police officers, to people.’” He nods. “I can still hear her voice.” (His mother died in 2009.)
On identifying with George Floyd
“When I saw George Floyd step out of the car, I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ A lot of people recognized him as being Black in that moment. But I saw Black and tall and intimidating because he was towering over these white officers. And I know what that can make them feel like. And I’ve found myself many times trying to be smaller in a room, rather than being the fullness of who I am.”
On President Trump
“I feel like I cannot turn away, because there’s so much going on at every moment,” Perry says. “I never watched cable news or the 24-hour news cycle—up until this president.”
Perry on what he would say to Trump
“I don’t know how much I could say to Trump,” he says. Later, he acknowledges that Trump’s racially incendiary rhetoric plainly discourages him. “Of course it does,” he says. “Unfortunately, when you don’t have any leadership speaking to peace, or speaking to calm, or even speaking to understand either side, it makes it all much more difficult.” “I’m not a person that likes politics or wants to get into it. But I’ll probably be more active during this election than I ever have been.”
“I probably wouldn’t be as affected if I wasn’t a parent—if my child wasn’t coming of age and asking questions. Seeing it through the eyes of a father, it has changed everything in tremendous ways. It makes me want to be more active. It makes me want to be more outspoken and thoughtful about change.”
On his vast real estate portfolio
“All of this is about legacy,” he says, referring to both his wealth and his properties. Like Winfrey, he’s promulgating that which has long eluded Black America: generational wealth. And he views his Atlanta estate as a beacon. “There’s no Black people that have left a monument and a home that ended up being a historic place in this country, to this degree,” he says. “I just want to be a North Star for any kid, Black or brown—or white—who comes from nothing to realize you can do anything.”
Winfrey on Perry’s shows
To many Black folks, Winfrey says, a Tyler Perry show “feels like when a pastor would come to town and you would have a re-viiii-val meetin.’ That’s exactly what goes on in there. It’s a revival of spirit. It’s not just people laughing at jokes onstage or laughing at Madea. It’s a place where people come to lay their burdens down and forget what’s going on in their everyday life for two hours and to experience a reflection of themselves in a way that makes them feel empowered about their own lives.”
Perry scolds those who use the Lord’s name in vain – “In the Bible Belt, that’s blasphemy,” she recalls him saying—but occasionally unleashes profanity-laced rants. “You never want to be in a situation where he has to pull out the MF-word,” Winfrey warns. “If he ever has to pull out the MF-word, I would say back away slowly.”
Tiffany Haddish on working with Perry
“The myth is that he doesn’t pay very well, that he doesn’t really support his actors,” Haddish says. “Or ‘He’s very difficult on set; don’t talk to him on set.’ It’s not true. He does support everybody. He listens to you.”
Perry on his swift, decisive action on the Coronavirus
In early June, Tyler Perry Studios became the largest production company in the industry to launch its own coronavirus bubble. “I realized that I had several hundred employees,” Perry says. “Some of them are former prisoners who were in prison for 10 and 20 years, and they’re just great people who are so grateful to have this second- chance opportunity. And they’ve bought houses and cars, and their lives have changed. So I found myself in a position of, OK, what are you going to do? I’m fortunate enough to go sit and wait this thing out for a vaccine for a year and a half. But what about them? What about their kids?”
Tyler Perry on existing in his coronavirus bubble
“I’m a loner by nature, so it doesn’t bother me at all,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, my God, you’re in quarantine.’ No. We have movies on the lawn in the evening. We have four or five different kinds of food trucks. We have an alcohol truck. It’s an adult summer camp, and we have not had any complaints.” Tyler Perry shows
Watch Tyler Perry accept his award…
Read the full article on WSJ Magazine here.
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