I once asked my homie, spoken word artist James Washington, how it is that a thugged-out brotha like him gets invited to speak at churches all the time and a (relatively speaking) clean-cut brother, like me, can’t even make it past the front door?
“Simple,” he said. “You don’t know how to speak Christianese.”
Ah, Christianese–a way of speaking that will make black folks give you the shirts off their backs. Master the language and African Americans will follow you to the ends of the Earth.
Just ask Tyler Perry, multimillionaire actor/writer/producer extraordinaire.
Over the last decade, Perry has made a fortune with his gospel plays, television sitcoms, and movies. His latest film, Madea Goes to Jail, which opens today, should be another blockbuster as he continues to follow the same formula that has been his bread and butter. Also, there is hardly a night that you can turn on your TV and not see his sitcoms House of Payne and Meet the Browns.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see what’s so appealing about Perry’s newer stuff. I mean, the plays were funny enough the first couple of years when they came to DVD, but somehow the comedy got old after a while. And when it was transferred to TV and the big screen, something got lost in the translation.
However, I’m probably in the minority on this one because, this weekend, black church folks across the country will make pilgrimages to their local theaters to get a look at Madea.
Perry is not the first to use Christianese to move black folks.
Historically speaking, the Portuguese and other European exploiters first used the language as justification for slavery and later the colonization of Africa. It was perfected by the slave owners, as Christianese was used to inspire the enslaved Africans to pick cotton from sun up to sun down with the hope of a reward in “the sweet by and by.”
During the civil rights era, black leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King became fluent in the language as they were able to convince thousands of black folks to join hands and sing “We Shall Overcome,” as they were being bitten by police dogs and doused with water from fire hoses.
Even today, politicians borrow very heavily from the language, as they know one short speech at a black church will translate into a lot of votes come Election Day.
The strange thing about Christianese is that you don’t even have to practice Christianity to speak it. Writer and motivational speaker Iyanla Vanzandt sold a lot of books to church folks before they realized that she was not a Pentecostal evangelist but a Yoruba priestess.
Not only have entertainers turned the art of speakin’ Christianese into a multibillion-dollar industry, they have also shown that black folks will forgive a multitude of transgressions because a performer says “Thank you, Jesus” at an awards show or puts one gospel track on an otherwise vulgar CD.
Even with Tyler Perry’s movies, how many good-ole sisters of the church, who demonize all forms of hip-hop, bust a gut laughing when Madea pulls out a pistol or rolls a blunt?
The main problem with many of the black gospel plays that appeal to church folk is a lack of substance. Opportunities to increase social awareness and to explore the depths of theology are replaced with weak storylines and slapstick comedy routines that went out of style with Amos ‘n’ Andy.
I am not saying that performers like Perry purposely dumb down their productions to reach their target audience, but it is a common perception that the theological understanding of most black church folks does not grow beyond the elementary Sunday School level, and that their biblical understanding is only a steady reaffirmation of what they learned before they were 10 years old.
So, a gospel play or TV show can be totally secular, but one well placed “Negro spiritual” will make it a big hit with black folks. And dare I even mention the timeworn themes of “the-prodigal-child-returning-home,” “praying-for-a-good-man,” or ” a-sudden-conversion-after-years-of-substance-abuse”?
Although some may argue that these are, indeed, experiences that black folks go through, this is not the “black experience” in its totality. These are just symptoms of a greater problem that stems, at least partially, from the failure of African Americans to understand the full dynamics of the African American religious experience in the context of the social ills that we have faced in this country.
This, of course, raises the age-old dilemma as to whether African American filmmakers are obligated to give us what we need, or what will rake in the most dollars at the box office.
Maybe there are socially redemptive values in Tyler Perry productions that I just don’t get. Perhaps somewhere between watching Madea threaten to whoop somebody’s behind and the grand finale that usually includes a gospel group sing-along, some lives are changed for the better–which would make the $10 spent on a movie ticket well worth the sacrifice. Could be that I just don’t get it.
But then again, I don’t speak Christianese.
“I am not saying that performers like Perry purposely dumb down their productions to reach their target audience”
-I am saying it.-
I confess, I laugh at some of his Madea stuff. But I always feel guilty later. Something just bugs me about black women being portrayed that way (as just short of a large man in a dress). I don’t want to be laughing at that. Some of his shtick is funny, but am I being too literal in thinking that it’s demeaning to our mothers, sisters, and daughters?
There are a couple of points.
You are correct in suggesting that African-Americans often reduce our religious diversity. We assume that if you aren’t doing it they way Kirk Franklin, or T.D. Jakes is doing it than you aren’t expressing African-American Christianity. We say this in utter ignorance of Black Catholics and Lutherans or the diverse styles within the “black” church.
I would actually argue that I welcome – to some degree – Tyler Perry. There are things that are stupid, but I also believe that there are some incredible messages of redemption, love and reconciliation that are present in his films. Medea is a character of unique ilk. I don’t always like her character, but I think the extremism is an expression of comedy which is, unfortunately, often seen as unintelligent. Slap-Stick makes you laugh, extremism makes you laugh (Dumb & Dumber, Home Alone), all comedy doesn’t need to be satire or cynical or utterly thought provoking some can just be raw. However, I don’t appreciate the nonchalance with which Tyler Perry utilizes Medea which she is referring to drugs or guns.
One last thing. I actually believe that his recent movies are much better and are absent of many of negatives in his earlier work (Although he is releasing Medea goes to jail as a film, he wrote it a while ago). Daddy’s Little Girls, The Family That Preys and Why Did I Get Married? didn’t include Medea and had, overall, messages and examples that were positive (of course not completely).
Tyler Perry’s comedy isn’t representative of all African-Americans, but I think that his work has worth and is of a certain kind that tailors itself to a certain community who often feels underrepresented. The suggestion that things are dumbed down, worries me. No one would say that a movie like “How to lost a guy in Ten Days” was dumbed down, but the movie wasn’t good and compared to something like “Why did I Get Married”, the movie is useless. What qualifies as value? Is there a bias away from Tyler Perry’s style because it is not the typical? I question.
I think the point of this piece is that part… not all, but PART … of his success stems from the bias that Black people have for churchy, “Christian” language that may or may not actually contain any theological, ethnical or moral substance. For an example (albeit an extreme one) many of our people were and are still QUITE willing to forgive and support R. Kelly because he is a master of appropriating certain gospel idioms (see: “Trade In My Life,” and “I Believe I Can Fly”) into music that borrows the cultural signatures of gospel music without actually supporting the MESSAGE of Christ.
Jelani, I definitely think that is true, many black folks are caught up in a “Christian culture” , but do not understand what it means to be culturally Christian and understanding the beliefs, values, and lifestyle that comes with following Christ.
Thanks for this commentary. I resonate with much of what you said. I have long felt that much of Tyler Perry’s “art” does more harm than good to the cause of Christ in the black community. It often offers a “Christianity” that is far from the faith of the Bible.
I have said for more than a long while that I was tired of the direction that Perry’s work has taken. I believe he started out okay, some of the funny stuff was just too much when you think about it, but with what Hollywood has to offer, he has compromised on what was once the refreshment that we needed in the entertainment world. When you could really anticipate in the past how good the next one was going to be, I now sometimes cringe because you just don’t know what to expect. It is pretty disappointing to me as a writer, but it also gives me the fuel to never ever want to go in that direction of compromise.
Thanks for reading!