Saturday, May 11, 2013

Unperrying a Tyler Perry movie

Peeples is the Tyler Perry movie Tyler Perry wants me to see.

Me, a white guy who is almost 40.

That's the only conclusion I can draw from the utter absence of the man's name from the advertising, especially when Perry's name is usually all over the advertisements for his movies. In fact, normally Peeples would be called Tyler Perry's Peeples, wouldn't it?

Yet here, his name is visible only in the most modest of skinny movie poster fonts above the title, reading "Tyler Perry Presents" -- though only if you squint real hard to read it.

Okay, okay, Perry isn't even the director here. The writer-director is a woman named Tina Gordon Chism. Turns out she also wrote ATL and Drumline, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Usually, though, whatever Perry's involvement was, it would be played up. If he attended a test screening, they would somehow work that into the movie's advertising campaign.

However, this movie is clearly not directed at Perry's usual audience.

Want to know our first indication of that fact?

Craig Robinson.

Now, no one's calling Craig Robinson an Uncle Tom, or less legitimately black than any one else in any way. However, he has made a career thus far of being the token black dude in movies and TV shows starring mostly whites, and aimed at that same audience. He's been conspicuously absent from the African-American ensemble movies that are Perry's bread and butter.

Let's look at how most of us first became aware of him: The Office. He's played Darryl Philbin -- or really just "Darryl," because they use his last name so rarely that I had to look it up on IMDB just now to figure out what it was. He was originally a surly member of the warehouse staff before being promoted to the white collar (note that) area of the building to give the show more color. He's a valued member of the ensemble and one of the show's best characters, not merely an instance of tokenism. However, you can't escape the fact that he's being offered to us as a touch of soul that legitimizes all the white folks.

His relationship with the Judd Apatow posse has kept getting him roles that more or less recreate that dynamic. He appeared in Knocked Up. He appeared in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. He appeared in Pineapple Express and Zach and Miri Make a Porno. He's also the only black guy in this summer's This is the End. If Seth Rogen or Paul Rudd or John C. Reilly has made a movie, he's been in it.

So my first reaction upon seeing him in a movie with two other black leads (David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington) was "Craig Robinson's in ... a black movie?"

Then again, Grier and Washington also have plenty of crossover appeal. Sure, Grier became known to us as a member of a primarily black comedic troupe (In Living Color), but he's skewed a bit more white in his choices ever since then. He even appeared in one of the most conservative-leaning films of the last five years in An American Carol, which relentlessly skewered Michael Moore and liberalism. Washington has a more diverse career -- she's worked with Perry previously (For Colored Girls), as well as Spike Lee (She Hate Me) and Chris Rock (I Think I Love My Wife) -- but she may be most famous to us as having appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. (Though I guess Quentin does have a fair amount of soul for a white guy.)

This post is by no means intended as a test for these people to "prove how black they are," but I do think these were probably conscious casting choices, so the movie would not appear to be designed exclusively for its black audiences.

Will we see that small box office uptick this weekend, the result of a few extra white viewers?

That's hard to say. The Great Gatsby is also opening, and with a glamorized vision of the 1920s and Leonardo DiCaprio -- not to mention 3D -- it's right in white people's wheelhouses. (Including this white guy, who's been waiting for this movie for over a year and will surely try to schedule it for early next week.)

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