In a recent interview with his close friend Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry compared Langston Hughes's negative criticism of Zora Neale Hurston's work to Spike Lee's negative criticism of Perry's work. I think Perry could use a better example when it comes to contemporary black writers downing his movies, plays, and television shows. (The timing of Perry's interview with Oprah coincides with the premier of his new drama, The Haves and Have Nots, on Winfrey's OWN channel tonight.)
Unlike Lee and Perry, Hughes and Hurston were friends who later had a falling out due to a bad collaboration. After that, Hughes became more critical of Hurston's work and once said of her: "To many of her white friends, no doubt she is the perfect 'darkie,' in the nice meaning of the term--that is a naive, childlike, sweet, humorous, and highly colored Negro." Those who've studied the lives of these two black artists will catch the pointed, personal dig Hurston's old friend leveled at her there.
Hughes knew that other than colorful and funny, Hurston fit none of the labels he placed on her, definitely not naive and sweet. In fact, Hurston's letters reveal she could be duplicitous, even, and so sassy in the way we love. Indeed, with Hughes's qualifier "to many of her white friends," he reveals that he was aware that Hurston wore a mask for white patrons. She was not the woman they saw. Furthermore, by his earlier praise of her work and his willingness to collaborate with her, it's clear he saw something valuable in her art. His negative criticism did not begin until they'd had a spat.
Perry would make a better case for negative critiques of his work by other African-American artists, in particular Lee, if he referenced Richard Wright's criticism of Hurston. Wright's objections were not personal but political, steeped more in ideological and aesthetic differences. He seemed to have an aversion to Hurston's work, and his own work was much darker. In general, he was an angrier black man than she was a black woman.
In my 2010 Examiner.com commentary on Perry criticism, I wrote the following:
. . . critiques [of Perry's work] may be observed as evidence of a class struggle issue between the upper class Spike Lees of the black community and the blue-collar, church-going folks with southern sensibilities. Tyler began and continues to build his empire through the southern-style, church-loving drama tradition that still thrives in African-American culture. . . . What this writer sees in these debates is that Perry faces the same kinds of criticisms African-American novelist, folklorist, and archaeologist Zora Neale Hurston received from the "intellecutal" black writers of her era, including Richard Wright.I also quote one of Wright's critiques in the Examiner piece. A 2012 book on black culture makes the same observation, that Wright's critique of Huston would be a better example for Perry.
Some people took issue with my Perry-Hurston-Wright observations, as you'll see in the comments section. At least one person seemed mildly offended that I would compare Perry with Hurston in any way. My observation, however, does not argue that Perry's work is equivalent to Hurston's work. All I have said is that the debate about his work is similar to the old debate about Hurston's work among black writers of her era.
A big difference between Perry and Hurston (beyond her being a black scholar as well as a writer) is that Hurston's audience included many white readers during her lifetime while black people are the primary consumers of Perry's movies and shows. Hurston died penniless, too, unfortunately, and I don't think there's any chance of Perry doing that.
For the record, I am neither a fan of Perry's work nor a vocal detractor. Sometimes I'll see his movies, and sometimes I won't because I find his work too formulaic and predictable. However, I admire him for being so productive and making it on his own. Like many artists, in my opion, Perry will benefit from more study of his art and time maturing. This is the same opinion I expressed when I wrote a critique of For Colored Girls for BlogHer.com.
I'm happy that he's found a way to earn real money doing what he loves. I wish Zora had been able to do the same. But I do wonder when he started comparing himself to her. Did Oprah have any influence there? She is, after all, a Zora fan, too.
Will you watch The Haves and Have Nots on OWN tonight?