WHEN culture is looked at from a global standpoint, especially black culture, Americans have always led the way in producing iconic figures with global reach. This includes the likes of Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby.
Jackson changed music and how it is visually presented. Winfrey revolutionised talk television. Basketball superstar Jordan remains a billion-dollar sports apparel business for Nike, more than 16 years after his retirement. Cosby changed the stereotype of buffoonish black people as notoriously peddled by minstrelsy and the black face invention of racist America of the early 1920s and 1930s.
For this reason, it is proper for us to cast our eyes beyond the borders and consider the momentous development in America’s showbiz arena.
Born Emmitt Perry Jr on September 13, 1969, Tyler Perry is an American actor, writer, producer, and director. A few days ago he opened Tyler Perry Studios in a glitzy affair which attracted one of his ardent celebrity supporter and business partner Winfrey and other luminaries such as Will Smith and Spike Lee in Atlanta, Georgia.
The studios sit upon 330 acres of a decommissioned army base that Perry bought for US$30 million in 2015 and has in the recent past been the site of productions such as Black Panther. For a sense of the scale of the development, some US$250 million was injected into renovations, that include historical 19th century homes, building soundstages named after black celebrities, among other buildings.
Celebrated American filmmaker of the Star Wars movie franchise, George Lucas, is reported as saying that “he that controls the means of production, controls the artistic vision”.
What Perry has done is seismic in terms of black empowerment because movies are made in studios for the most part and to actually own the production facilities which of course house the equipment for filming and editing and all other related processes is the ultimate power move. In recognition of his life work, BET awarded Perry with the Ultimate Icon award. He said he built his studio “in the poorest black neighbourhood in Atlanta so the kids can see that a black man did that, and they can too. The studio was once a confederate army base.”
Essence magazine reports that the land on which the studio stands is known as “Fort McPherson, which was used as a Confederate Army base during the Civil War, when the southern states fought the northern states to keep black people enslaved.” In my view, there is a poetic significance in the fact that the studio is built on land with such history. It is not merely sweet vengeance per se; it is poetic justice.
Celebrities such as Beyoncé have written on their social media platforms that: “Generations of blood, sweat and tears, success, excellence and brilliance. It makes me so proud, so full, I could not stop crying.” To put Beyoncé, herself a multi-award winning music and pop culture icon revered by millions of mainly women fans across the world, into context, one has to remember America’s history of racial segregation and slavery.
It is only yesterday that blacks could not use the same rest rooms as fellow white citizens. Martin Luther King Jnr epitomised the dream of America he had in his famous I have a dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 as a culmination of the march on Washington by 250 000 people, saying: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
Understanding the power of symbols is integral to the successful lobbying efforts. King’s speech was delivered in the shadow of the monument to President Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing blacks in the southern states. It was deliberate choice intended to spotlight the tardy pace of progress in desegregating America over a hundred years after the proclamation.
The media and global attention that King brought to the issue would have helped catalyse the passing of the Civil Rights Act by the US Congress in 1964. These laws helped to at least enable blacks to get equal treatment in American society. So Beyoncé’s comments about the Perry Studios opening must be taken together with all this history.
For someone to reach icon status it means one would have done something momentous in the given society and sometimes they do transcend their own society to touch the world. Perry has, through his motion picture productions, indeed, touched millions across the world. Interestingly, his major character is Madea, a caricature of a strong black wise-cracking religious southern woman.
Some black intellectuals such as Jamilah Lemieux have hailed Perry for portraying “emasculated black men and crass, sassy black women”.
Others see Perry as someone simply celebrating the strong black women who raised him and that he grew up seeing in his community. Incidentally, according to US Population Reference Bureau in 2002, “about 5% of non-Hispanic white and Asian households were headed by women with children.” In contrast, single mothers with kids accounted for 22% of all black households.”