Outspoken director Spike Lee (Malcolm X) has never had the highest opinion of the work of fellow African American filmmaker Tyler Perry (best known for his Madea series), which Lee has said is stereotypical “coonery and buffoonery.” Apparently, Perry has had enough of Lee’s bad-mouthing because at a press conference for his latest film this week, he had some uncharacteristically harsh words for Lee.
“I’m so sick of hearing about damn Spike Lee,” Perry said. “Spike can go straight to hell! You can print that. I am sick of him talking about me, I am sick of him saying, ‘this is a coon, this is a buffoon.’…Spike needs to shut the hell up!”
Perry continued to say: “I’ve never seen Jewish people attack Seinfeld and say ‘this is a stereotype,’ I’ve never seen Italian people attack The Sopranos, I’ve never seen Jewish people complaining about Mrs. Doubtfire or Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. I never saw it. It’s always black people, and this is something that I cannot undo…I’m sick of it from us. We don’t have to worry about anybody else trying to destroy us and take shots because we do it to ourselves.”
Now, Perry raises some interesting points, which I’d like to discuss in the context of the Asian American community. But first, let me just point out some issues I have with parts of Perry’s statement. I realize he most likely said these things in the heat of the moment, but there’s inaccuracies that I don’t think we should just gloss over.
Perry’s point seems to be that other ethnic groups do not criticize the work of those in their own community and that this is a phenomenon unique to the African American community. I think there’s plenty of evidence to suggest this isn’t true. Even the examples Perry cites are problematic: Italian Americans have criticized projects like The Sopranos for perpetuating stereotypes and there are Jews who’ve had issues with what they perceived as Seinfeld’s “self-hating Jewishness.” And if no Jews complained about Mrs. Doubtfire, it’s probably because no one considers that to be a “Jewish” film.
And certainly when it comes to our own community, there’s been no reluctance to do the same. Asian Americans were at the forefront of the protests against the “white-washing” in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, my fellow Offender Quentin recently blogged about his issues with Elaine Kim’s new documentary Slaying the Dragon Reloaded and there were those who attacked my fellow Offender Justin’s Better Luck Tomorrow for portraying Asians in a “negative” light.
In general, as I’ve written before, I think healthy and constructive self-criticism is not only important, but vital to our growth as artists—both collectively and individually. And it’s naïve to think that just because we share the same skin color or background or even culture, that we’re all going to think monolithically and share the same opinions.
But I do understand where Perry is coming from with his frustration. At some point, the criticism from your own peeps does occasionally cross over into territory where it does start to serve a more negative purpose. Let me use the 1994 ABC sitcom All-American Girl as an example of this.
Created as a vehicle for comedian Margaret Cho, the show mostly revolved around her character’s conflicts with her more traditional Korean family. At the time, it was billed as the first Asian American family sitcom on network prime-time. The show was also relentlessly attacked by the Korean/Asian American community for its stereotypes and “inauthenticity.”
I don’t think the series was as good as it could’ve been with someone as talented as Cho in the lead, but quality issues aside, the disapproval from the community seemed to go beyond that—every small detail came under intense scrutiny: from the Asian cast members not being Korean to the fact the family didn’t take their shoes off when entering the house to the “wrong” design on one of the prop vases. All the while, Cho was struggling very hard to gain more control of the creative direction of the show (not to mention, destroying her health with the network’s weight-loss “demands”) and I know all the difficulties were compounded for her by the lack of support from the community. It seemed like a no-win scenario. In the end, the show was cancelled during its first season.
Was there a way for the community to constructively criticize the show while still supporting Cho and others who were trying to address the concerns and improve things? I’d like to think so. But if TV executives were already reluctant about putting Asian faces on prime-time TV in any significant way, after All-American Girl, it became that much harder. Why subject yourself to all those accusations of racism for very little return?
I remember a few years after All-American Girl when I started working in TV and a friend was putting together a pilot at one of the networks (the show never made it to air). One of the regular characters was to be an Asian American TV weatherman who was very much like Neil Patrick Harris’ character in How I Met My Mother. The guy was a ladies’ man who had incredible luck with women, but was not the brightest bulb in the room. He was a very charming character who could potentially steal all the scenes he was in. But the studio refused to cast an Asian actor in the part. They were afraid the Asian American community would be offended by the character and kept referencing the All-American Girl experience as one they didn’t want to go through. Our argument that this was exactly the type of non-stereotypical character the community would embrace fell on deaf ears.
I’m not saying that we should blindly support anything just because it’s Asian American. The truth is a lot of the work we produce is shit and we need to challenge ourselves to do better. However, I think there’s still a healthy balance that we haven’t quite hit upon yet. But curious to know what others think about this topic.
Here’s the Spike Lee interview where he talks about Tyler Perry and “buffoonery:”