Tyler Perry
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.
How so?
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.

You've said that you believe God is calling you to tell your story. What makes you believe that?
Once you get through all of these things in life, and you endure all of these things, I think our stories in life are not just for us. I think the things we endure, and a lot of the things we're ashamed of and that we hold on to, are not necessarily for us, but you overcome by the words of your testimony. So if someone else had been through it, you can share with them what you've been through, and that will help them as well to go higher and be better.
What do you hope the reaction of audiences will be to your movies?
What's important to me is not to beat people over the head, not to preach. I don't want to do that, I don't want to be known as that. What I want to be known as is a person who makes people laugh, and [makes people] comfortable enough to provoke thought and move people to change. If you see the movie and you see something that reminds you of yourself that you don't like, then if it inspires you to change for the better, that's a great thing. And [even] if it's only one person who does that, then the film has been what I wanted it to be.
In your own life, you've overcome major odds, including rising from homelessness to find the success you have now. How did you find the strength to overcome those obstacles, and what lessons did you learn?
The most important thing that I learned in growing up is that forgiveness is something that, when you do it, you free yourself to move on. And in finding that in my own life, I wanted to share it with other people.
And who was most important for you to forgive in your life?
My father has been the most important person for me to forgive. We had a conversation one evening where I got a chance to say everything I wanted to say, in anger, and at that moment, there was this huge release in me, and I knew that something had changed, and I needed to forgive him from that point. It wasn't planned. It just happened at a moment when I was really angry and really vulnerable and just full of rage, and things came out of me that I didn't even know were there.
And how did he respond?
By saying he loved me for the first time in my life.
And has your relationship been changed by that?
It has changed. It's tolerable.
You've said that you are "passionate about mending the disconnect" between generations. What is that disconnect and how do we overcome it?
I don't know how it happens for the world, but I can tell you how it happens for what I'm doing. Through humor and comedy, I've been able to bridge the gaps and speak to both about the same things but on different levels at the same time.
The great thing about the gift that I've been given, and only God could have done this, I'll stand on the stage every night--I see about 35,000 people a week--and the other day I asked, "Who's the youngest in the audience?" There was an 8-year-old sitting in the front row. And I said, "Who's the oldest?" There was a woman who was 91 sitting in the balcony. So it's such a wonderful thing for me to be able to speak across generations to all of these families. That's a gift, and I don't know too many people who can do it on this earth in this manner. What it means to me to be able to do that is absolutely just one huge blessing. The disconnect between the two is because the older generation's morals and values are very different from the younger generation, and trying to find a way to bring them together has been a challenge, but it's also been something that has been done, so I am pretty excited about that.
Bill Cosby has made headlines by criticizing black communities. What is your reaction to him?
Dr. Cosby and I are saying the exact same things. The difference is, Madea is saying it--I'm saying it--in comedy. And people are getting it, but they're getting it with enough laughter for it not to be offensive. How he's saying it is as just flat out, straight truth. We're saying the exact same things.
If you see "Madea's Family Reunion," at the end, there's this speech by Cicely Tyson where she's saying, "Take your place. What happened to what we used to be? Where is the fire that we used to have?" We're asking the question: Why are our children not educated? Why aren't they going to school? What is happening?
Maya Angelou appears in the new film. What was it like working with her?
She brought so much class and legitimacy to it, it just really made it a surreal experience for me, because she is such a person of wisdom and an icon. It was awesome.

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