Monday, September 14, 2009
You Gon' Be All Right: On Maia Campbell and (More on) Tyler Perry
Campbell, center, with the cast of In the House
Last week, I didn't take the opportunity to blog about Maia Campbell, something that I had fully intended to do. Instead, my only significant output was a blog about Tyler Perry taking over command of the for colored girls film. I worry that not allowing myself time to post my thoughts about Campbell was an implicit, unspoken participation in the suppression and dismissal of her situation, her struggles. I want to correct that. Further, I want to make a connection to both events, which is something I haven't seen folks do, but I find especially necessary at this juncture.
For those of you who don't know, a video of Maia (pronounced My-ee-ah) Campbell went (semi-)viral last week. I won't post it here. The pathetic man who filmed it and the other men who participated are too despicable for links and vocabulary, even the word despicable. If there is a hell below (or anywhere else) and these men go, I will not protest; that is not an exaggeration. What you need to know is that for 6.5 minutes these men filmed Campbell while she was quite obviously under duress. Essentially, an unseen man taped Campbell and asked her questions as she sat in the passenger's seat of the car waiting for her male companion to return from inside the house.
Despite the fact that Campbell is noticeably unwell, the man--presumably a relative of Campbell's companion--not only films her but prods, laughs at, even propositions her. In short, he makes her a spectacle. Campbell, though in a precariously tender state, does exhibit a trace of clarity. Certain statements pithily reveal some of the core issues at play during this encounter. Her initial question, "Who's paying me for this?"seems to intimate an understanding--on some level--that she, by way of her appearance on camera, is being commodified, de-humanized and therefore should at least garner some sort of compensation for her "cooperation." In other words, her predicament is being exploited for the pleasure of a black male gaze (to put it mildly), and she knows it. She also (knows that she) can't stop it: she can't stop the filming, can't drive away from the house, can't prevent her reactions to the questions, the jokes.
Although initially humorous to the man she's talking to, he takes issue with Campbell's expletive-laced retorts when she begins talking about his mother saying, "Slow down when you talk about my people." This reveals that he sees no commonality between his mother and Campbell, and is thus justified in his disrespect of her. Further, he tells her to chill because the neighbors are getting upset. No one suggests that the man stop filming her, bothering her. In fact someone threatens to take her behind the house and choke her. When Campbell's companion returns, he elbows her in the arm, and she responds by telling the men outside of the car, "I'ma get beat up, but you gon' be all right," showing she knows that in the eyes of these men, her behavior warrants physical punishment to put her back in line. Their actions and power goes unchecked. They laugh at her. The final frame is of Campbell's companion driving away from the camera.
Later that same week, it was announced that Tyler Perry would take the reins of the for colored girls film. Fluky timing, I guess. A man who has appropriated black female "insubordination" and turned it into an extremely successful film franchise has been given charge of a text that examines narratives not entirely unlike Campbell's. According to reports Maia, the daughter of famed author Bebe Moore Campbell, is schizophrenic. She has never enjoyed taking the medication that helped her cope with it. Managing her illness became virtually impossible after her mother's death, as Campbell turned to substance abuse, which only exacerbated her situation. As a result, she engaged in unhealthy behavior. Though to my knowledge Perry has not tackled the issue of mental illness directly (maybe he has), his fictional women characters have often participated in similarly dangerous conduct. Perry's filmic eye has been not only generally critical of these women's "unacceptable" attitudes, but it has also been a gaze that was just as judgmental and unwilling to critique black men as the camera that filmed Maia Campbell. Now, stories centered on black women who have experienced domestic violence, abortion, and rape are in the hands of this man, someone who charmed Oprah by imitating Sophia. Go figure.
I've written on Perry's imitation of black pathology for the sake of humor before. Let me paraphrase myself. Tyler Perry has concretely entrenched himself in black popular culture by profiting from the cultural capital of intimately knowing black movies like What's Love Got to do With It? and The Color Purple. Perry has endeared himself to fans by aping scenes that concern the physical and mental abuse of black women for comedic effect. Take a(nother) look:
Further, Perry has done this under the guise of wanting to tell black women's stories. He feigns authority; he feigns respect. He takes struggles that color many black women's lives and recycles them, transforming them into "funny," conservative, patriarchal and misogynistic stories that lack depth, intelligence and understanding. For Perry, black women who experience abuse and unhappiness deserve it; for more than likely, they were acting out of place. Maia Campbell, we are left to assume, will suffer a similar fate for similar reasons. So in many ways, Perry is no better than the men who filmed Maia Campbell. He's just a professional.
Though the non-fictional aspect of the former case probably makes it the more extreme of the two, these instances are connected and alarmingly similar, and I would be floored if others didn't see the link(s). Perry also works behind the camera, casting a judgmentally critical and heterosexist gaze upon the women who star in his films. Perry's women characters deserve the abuse they receive from men because they seem to have forgotten their place; their "defiant" actions implicitly question men's power, and that cannot go unpunished. Maia Campbell's parting words, "I'ma get beat up, but you gon' be all right," reflects similar circumstances. Campbell's responses were fine until she started to disrespect the men filming her. Recall, Rockmund Dunbar's character was perfectly justified in slapping Sanaa Lathan's character because she had finally become intolerably disrespectful.
In addition, Perry neutralizes, diminishes the more serious aspects of these black women's lives through his Madea character. In the way that his imitations of Ike and Tina Turner and Sophia's confrontation elicit laughter instead of serious pause, Madea's antics make us forget that there's some seriously problematic shit happening on screen. Rather than compel us to confront the reality of issues such as rape and abuse with seriousness, Perry prefers to give his audience doses of soma, allowing Madea and a gospel choir to lull us into a forgetful sleep, instead of jerking us into a radical consciousness.
Nzingha Stewart and her vision, encourage the dream of another young filmmaker, or ensure diversity in black film, Perry taking over for colored girls allows him to continue to propagate his own vision, ensuring that mainstream black cinema remains a two-dimensional, coon-filled monolith. Instead of a method of empowerment, in Perry's hands the possibilities that filmmaking presents becomes a means of capitalizing from rendering black women--and their struggles--voiceless. Perry, then, resembles the young men who filmed Campbell. They obviously didn't (care to) understand Maia's predicament, and found no use for her outside of humor and sex acts, the same can be said for Perry. Perry has no real interest in black women's lives beyond highlighting those events that can forward his story towards its paternalistic resolution. Under his aegis, for colored girls will inevitably become a masturbatory star-studded flick that has been evacuated of all meaning. Here's what he had to say about for colored girls: “If you know anything about the play, you know that it’s a bunch of poems." He continued, “There’s no real story, and that’s probably why it’s never been made into a movie." If Perry thinks there is no story, then why bother telling it? If Perry cannot locate the narrative, does that mean that he will invent one? I'm afraid so. With such a cavalier assessment of the play, how much care can we expect from Perry's vantage behind the camera? To add, Perry continues to reveal that he's a fucking self-absorbed moron, "That’s what the script is about. I want to make sure that I respect and honor the play because it was written before I was born.” That's right. Perry wants to "respect" and "honor" the play not because the play, as an artistic entity in and of itself, deserves it, but because it existed before he did. Narcissitic much? Perry seems to think quite highly of his vision, and we validate his opinion of himself with every movie ticket we buy.
We cannot support people we devalue. (For every step R. Kelly takes on free soil, a young black girl learns she is worthless.) We cannot castigate the men who filmed Maia Campbell and financially support Tyler Perry. We must see how our cultural products reflect our cultural opinions. How surprised can we be by the black men who filmed Maia Campbell with such vulgarity when the most financially successful black man in the movie business behaves similarly and debuts, again, at number one at the box office? How high can we raise our eyebrows at men who attempted to stereotype Campbell into a crazy, drug-addicted prostitute when we applaud Perry for his inability to cinematically articulate black women's humanity? We cannot laugh through one filmic frame and judge the other. We cannot shame those men on the street when under Perry's care and diagnosis all the Maia Campbells of the world need is Jesus and the love of a "good" black man. Those ambiguities will not hold. Such disdainful actions, fictional or real, cannot be tolerated. Unfortunately, they will. We'd rather laugh than do better.
How is your daughter?