BY SOFIYA BALLIN
THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER / TNS
PHILADELPHIA – Tyler Perry wears many hats – producer, actor, director, screenwriter – but many know him for the wig he wears as Mabel “Madea” Simmons, who has been to jail, taken over Christmas, and delighted audiences as the voice of reason and recklessness in films and plays going back to 1999.
Now, she’s taking on Halloween in “Tyler Perry’s Boo! A Madea Halloween.”
When it comes to this latest film in his franchise, Perry has one request: “Everybody take a breath and just laugh,” he said in an interview this month.
“So much is going on in this country, we just need to laugh.”
His latest movie
During a preview screening at Philadelphia’s Prince Theater the night before we talked, his movie had a Philly crowd in fits of laughter as Madea and company carried out their latest shenanigans.
The premise finds Madea watching over her nephew Brian’s teenage daughter, Tiffany, on Halloween – which Tiffany intends to celebrate at a frat party. In addition to demented clowns and zombies, we get a scene in which Madea dances to rapper Tyga’s 2012 hit “Rack City,” despite trying to fight the urge. (Tyga appears as himself.)
Perry was sitting off to the side in the theater, watching the crowd take it all in.
“I’ve seen it a million times, but this was my second time seeing it with an audience,” he said.
“Philly don’t care. Philly was wide open that night.”
Staying in touch
Perry said watching people watch his movies is one way he stays in touch with his audience, to keep himself grounded and his storytelling authentic. For a lot of celebrities, living in mansions and vacationing in exotic places, “it’s very easy not to see people anymore,” he said. “I’ve kept my hands in their hands.”
He said Madea connects with people because she’s relatable.
“People have this grandmother in their lives,” he said. “She told the truth, she wasn’t politically correct, she said what was on her mind, and people just loved her.”
There’s no question she’s been marketable, too. “Madea Goes to Jail,” Perry’s biggest hit, raked in more than $90 million at the box office. “Madea’s Witness Protection” and “Madea’s Family Reunion” brought in about $65 million apiece.
But critics have long contended that she and characters of her ilk perpetuate damaging caricatures of Black people – the “coonery and buffoonery” that Spike Lee memorably called out Perry for in 2009. (They’ve since made peace.)
“What critics were saying,” Perry said, “was that there’s a section of our culture today that does not deserve to have their story told.” He begs to differ.
Whitney Houston, denigrated in some circles as “Whitey Houston,” came in for similar critiques, he said, and he chooses not to dwell on them.
Building a brand
“Here’s the thing you have to understand: I have a goal,” he said. “My goal was own enough product – own all of your stuff, build a brand – and be able to effectively change that.”
As a retrospective in Forbes magazine last year noted, marquee stars like Idris Elba, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson and countless others “have all put in time in the Tyler Perry universe.”
“One-fourth of all diversity in Hollywood is attributed to me,” he said during our interview. “Do you understand?”
Perry said critics say he should also diversify his storytelling, but he’s fine with it as is. “Don’t ask me to change my storytelling.”
He said he was proud to be part of a broader balance that now includes programming like Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” and his prime-time show “The Haves and the Have Nots.”
A new dad
Perry is also a proud father. At the mention of his son, Aman, he whipped out his phone and started flipping through photos of the happy 2-year-old.
Fatherhood has changed his life – among other things, he no longer has time to pursue his pilot’s license – and he’s begun to think about the legacy he’ll leave, both for his son and for Hollywood.
“When they look at my work,” he said, “I want them to say, ‘He left us with joy, he hired us, he made us believe in ourselves, and he changed Hollywood.”