Tyler Perry, HIV, And Why Hollywood Should Stop Ignoring African-American Moviegoers

Over at Buzzfeed, Louis Peitzman has a damning piece about the way that Tyler Perry uses HIV as a moral weapon in his latest movie, Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, which he situates within Perry’s injection of HIV into his adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. He explains that in Temptation, the main character Judith, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, contracts HIV through her affair with a man not her husband, and that her infection is deliberately related to both another character and to the movie as both the result of her straying, and as a cautionary tale to other women. Louis writes:

Whether or not one condones cheating on a spouse, the implication that a person deserves HIV is horrifying. What’s worse, however, is that Perry has written Temptation as a morality play, in which “Man begins in innocence, Man falls into temptation, Man repents and is saved.” As Madea would say, “Hallelujer.”

Like Perry’s other movies, there is nothing subtle about Temptation. It’s not just the sin of Lust that Perry condemns: Throughout Temptation, we’re also schooled on Greed (as Judith consumes more and more of what Harley buys for her), Pride (as she begins to show off her body in more revealing outfits), Wrath (Harley’s violent temper), and Envy (Harley covets another man’s wife). Judith’s God-fearing mother Sarah (Ella Joyce) even refers to Harley as the Devil. The traditional morality play presents Satan not as a symbol but as a literal being, battling with God for a person’s soul.

Viewed in this context, it’s not simply that Judith deserves HIV, but that it’s a “sinner’s disease.” HIV — at least, HIV the plot device — is Tyler Perry’s punishment for our sins.

It’s a reminder how depressing it is that Tyler Perry is one of the only black filmmakers in America who can make any movie he wants, at any time, and be assured of financing, and that he’s become perhaps the dominant figure making entertainment aimed at black audiences. If he wanted to, Perry, through his studio and the profits of his successful projects, could have built a generation of black filmmakers with diverse perspectives—For Colored Girls, in particular, would have been a tremendous project for a woman to direct. Instead, he’s consolidated his power, and is using his influence to both make deeply mediocre entertainment and to spread horrible messages about HIV to very large audiences. We’re at a point where it would be both a creative good and a public one for someone else to get treat African-American moviegoers like they’re an audience worth cultivating if only to cut down on Perry’s financial and intellectual market share.