Tyler Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" surprised Hollywood observers with a number-one box office showing for its opening weekend--and continued to surprise as it went on to earn more than $50 million. Not bad for a film made on a reported $5.5 million budget. And not bad, especially, for a filmmaker who spent time living on the streets while he tried to jumpstart his play-writing career. Since then, though, Perry, 36, has found great success--first on the stage, and now on the screen--with stories that mix humor and drama, focusing on African-American communities and families. His signature character, Madea, is an over-the-top grandmother, played by Tyler himself, who dispenses wisdom, exhorts her family and friends to stand up for themselves and their loved ones, and is unafraid to pull out and wave her ever-ready pistol.
Perry spoke to Beliefnet
just before the release of his follow-up to "Diary," "Madea's Family
Reunion." His "Meet the Browns" is available on DVD starting June 20th.
Family is obviously a recurring theme in your work. Why is it so important to you, and what is your definition of family?
Family and faith
are both very important to me, and forgiveness. I think that with everything I've done, in the end, whoever the central character is, they would find a way to forgive, because that's really important to me. Forgiveness is important in families, especially when there are so many secrets that need to be healed--for the most part, every family's got them.
In your work, faith is integrated seamlessly into your characters' lives, in a way that a lot of movies don't do. What is the role of faith in your work?
The thing about it is, I don't know why it's never talked about in film. There are people [making films] who believe, but I think they're people who believe in the closet. They believe very quietly. There's this huge separation of church and state. I'm not afraid to mix the two. I'm not afraid to have a character say, "I am a Christian," or, "I believe in God," because I think they represent real people on this earth.
Why do you think there's such a fear of dealing with this topic in movies and on TV?
That's a very good question, and I have no answers for it. I'd like to know myself. If you ever find out, you let me know. Because I'd really like to know why people are afraid to say that. But I think, for me--and this is true of other writers--you write from your own experiences. And if your experiences are that, then you write from a place where that is.
So what is the role of faith in your life?
It is extremely important. I am a Christian, I am a believer, and I know had I not been a person of faith, I couldn't be here in this place, and I wouldn't be walking the path that I'm on now. And I think the greater good of the path I'm on now is to teach people to learn to forgive and move on, in a way that's done through the healing power of humor.
Can you say more about the healing power of humor and its role in this theme of forgiveness?
What I've been able to do with my character, Madea, and the other characters, with the jokes
, is use it as an anesthetic to get to the heart and soul of real issues. And what I've found on stage over the years is that, while making people laugh, I can drop in pearls of wisdom. That's like tilling the soil for the seeds to be planted. And that's what I've tried to do, to plant seeds that will grow into good situations, seeds that will grow into abundant life for many people.
Madea is a character who knows nothing about salvation, because this character is so funny, I didn't want to have it based in Christianity
, because it would turn off a lot of people. But it's been able to draw so many people in to listen to what this character has to say and provoke thought for so many people--just being a mirror: Do I behave that way? Or, am I this way in a relationship? So then people can say, "Okay, do I need to learn to forgive this person?" Or, "Do I need to pray more about this?" It's an opportunity for me to say all of those things through laughter.
Why do you keep coming back to this issue of forgiveness?
It's very important to me, because I grew up, the first 28 years of my life, very unhappy, and I'm 36 now. It was at that time that I forgave my father for a lot of things that had been done, and my life changed, and I learned how powerful it is, and how, in order to be forgiven, you have to forgive others.
How do you find the strength to forgive?
If you haven't forgiven someone, it does not hurt that person. They're sleeping at night. You're holding onto that, and all the damage is being done to you internally. So when you learn the power of that--your being angry with that person has no power over them, it only has power over you--you're responsible for it, and you have to make a choice: Do I let this go, or do I hold onto it?
Your bio in the movie's production notes references prominently your faith and relationship with God. How would you describe that relationship?
I've always believed in God, from the time I was very, very young. I always knew there was something with me, not necessarily knowing what to call it. But I've got aunts and uncles and cousins who were pastors and ministers, and growing up around them, I've always had this close connection, and I've always prayed, and I've always felt my prayers were answered in time. So I've always had that close connection, and I am grateful for it, because I've watched--because of my faith in God, because of my love and my belief--everything in my life, no matter how bad, work together for my good.
Continued on page 2: Bill Cosby and I are saying the exact same things. »