With God on Our Side Filmmaker Tyler Perry pens a Christian self-help book.

As of the writing of this review, Tyler Perry’s Boo 2!  A Madea Halloween was the 48th highest grossing film released this year.  Perry wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the film, portraying his highly bankable character, the elderly, sassy, vengeful but good-hearted Mabel “Madea” Simmons, arguably the most famous female character created by a black male actor since comedian Flip Wilson’s Geraldine was a regular on Wilson’s weekly television program (1970-1974). It is the ninth Madea film to be released since Diary of a Mad Black Woman in 2005, the first film featuring the character, and Perry’s first film after establishing himself as a successful playwright. Forty-eighth place may not sound so impressive but Boo 2! has out-grossed more expensive films like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Geostorm. In fact, despite garnering only 6 percent favorable reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Boo2! has earned twice its costs, which means in the end it will turn a profit, not as handsome as the first Madea film which made ten times its cost, but it will do much better than, say, the far more expensive Justice League, which has grossed more but is far from turning a profit and may not do so even in the natural lifespan of its makers. More Madea films await us, no doubt! There is gold in them thar hills, which is all Hollywood moguls care about. Perry may be the most financially successful, profit per film, of any black filmmaker.[1]

Tyler Perry, playwright, actor, scriptwriter, director, producer, and television show developer may be the closest thing we have to a modern-day version of an entrepreneur like black pioneer filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951). And like Micheaux (and Spike Lee), Perry has written books. Fortunately, unlike Micheaux, Perry does not have to go door-to-door with cartons of his product, trying to sell them. Perry lives, luckily, in the age of social media and the mass distribution of black cultural stuff. His first effort, Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life, was a comic riff on his most famous character. It was a New York Times bestseller.

In the age of the reign of Oprah Winfrey, this book is yet another indication of how the therapeutic has triumphed, to borrow a phrase. Everything is therapy for the damaged self; all intelligible articulation becomes pep talks for the misdirected, the undirected, the seeking, and the unhappy. Every successful, famous person becomes, perforce, a coach for the masses, telling us to hang in there, believe in God’s goodness, aspire to be your best self, and all will come ’round right, as the Shakers used to sing.

His latest book is a bit different: Higher Is Waiting is an inspirational cum motivational work, combining Christian aphorisms (unfortunately, that is what the Bible is reduced to these days in this sort of book, pithy quotations without context) and self-help homilies. The market for this book, as for the first, is clearly working-class and especially middle-class African-American women, a powerful consumer group and taste culture indeed. In the age of the reign of Oprah Winfrey, this book is yet another indication of how the therapeutic has triumphed, to borrow a phrase. Everything is therapy for the damaged self; all intelligible articulation becomes pep talks for the misdirected, the undirected, the seeking, and the unhappy. Every successful, famous person becomes, perforce, a coach for the masses, telling us to hang in there, believe in God’s goodness, aspire to be your best self, and all will come ’round right, as the Shakers used to sing. The skeptical, the intellectual, the woke, will dismiss this as the height of banality, of the crass, cynical exploitation of restless but numbed psyches unfulfilled by the material abundance of our capitalistic dreamland, where everyone wants what he or she deserves and what he or she deserves is everything he or she wants. For these readers, Perry’s book is nothing more than apolitical, deracialized nonsense, disguised as an advice book, a staple of the American market since at least the 19th century, particularly for women readers. The assumption of books like Higher Is Waiting is that God is good, which might be true, and that God is our friend, our parent, our mentor, our guide, which is not only questionable but perhaps even childish to believe. To borrow from a recent book title, all the evidence would point to the fact that God is not nice and to think so (just as some think God is a socialist, a conservative, or, heaven forbid, a liberal) is another sign of the sheer banality of the human imagination in making God over to be like us. Maybe the Calvinists had it right: the sole reality that God can have for human beings is his (or its) sovereignty, and nothing else. (See the Book of Job.) God rules and does not explain anything.

But this sort of dismissal is all too easy, too much of critics sounding smug because they think that the book is beneath them. It leaves too many important questions unanswered: is Higher Is Waiting black literature?  If so, which I think it is, what kind of black literature is it or how does it affect the black literature that came before it or that surrounds it? My answer is yes, Higher Is Waiting is part of an important tradition of black self-help books combining religion and self-improvement, not unlike Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, or David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. The racial self-consciousness of Higher Is Waiting is subtler, more mute, than in some of the books mentioned above but just as vital to its message. If anything, racial consciousness is sharper in Higher Is Waiting in an ironical way because the book is largely addressing itself to a black audience that has achieved a certain measure of success or thinks that it can. With this sort of aspiration, the black community has always stressed a concomitant sense of responsibility which is why the religious component of the book is so important: the book’s racially understated, but clear, message is that to be black is a mission.

How is the audience for such a book affected by it, and how do they use such a book? This is the sort of book that would be assigned in many black women’s reading groups and book clubs, so it would be subjected to a rigorous discussion that is both analytical and self-reflective. There would be no reason to think that book is simply accepted uncritically by its audience, or that the audience does not consume it in some highly complex and selective ways. A book like this intensifies a sense of black community for its readers by being racial, yet universal. It is almost a totem.

In short, a book like this, by no means a literary masterpiece or even good in a conventional literary sense, does much work that is constructive for its audience and for the tradition that generated it.

The book seems to say, not originally but effectively, that we have destinies to meet. In this way, success is flooded with meaning, depth, and a narrative simplicity that makes life a parable, not unlike the Christian faith which is so built on the idea of the parable (and the prophetic sermon). The context in which Perry places his success is as revealing, for both its artifice and its sincerity, as if he had written a standard autobiography.

In this short book, composed of very short chapters that are like vignettes built thematically around the metaphor of the growth of a tree, we learn snippets of Perry’s life as a child in New Orleans, where he was brutally mistreated by the man he called his father (not his actual biological father) and developed an intense closeness to his mother, whom he promised to take care of when he became a success. (In fact, the book seems about him and his mother almost to the entire exclusion of any account of his relationship with his siblings or his mother’s relationship with her other children.) We learn of his unwavering belief in himself, odd jobs he took as a child such as working in a pet shop, his indifferent schooling, his difficult time getting started as a playwright and actor, the challenges that have come with success, such as finding enough space to house his growing empire of moviemaking or feeling at ease at a party given by Oprah Winfrey. One might wish for a full-blown autobiography but what is here serves well and it is particularly instructive to learn how Perry constructs his life events around his faith, his prayers, his guidance from God, so the book becomes, interestingly, a kind of tribute to God granting human beings their particular rendezvous with destiny. The book seems to say, not originally but effectively, that we have destinies to meet. In this way, success is flooded with meaning, depth, and a narrative simplicity that makes life a parable, not unlike the Christian faith which is so built on the idea of the parable (and the prophetic sermon). The context in which Perry places his success is as revealing, for both its artifice and its sincerity, as if he had written a standard autobiography.

I did not like the book, as such, but it was not written for someone like me. However, I did come to appreciate the book itself as an emblem, and the people, for whom it is written. I learned more about those people from reading Higher Is Waiting than if I had read an academic study of them.

 

Gerald Early, Chair

[1] Martin Lawrence’s trilogy of Big Momma films, where he portrays a policeman going undercover as an overweight, elderly, sassy, sometimes gross, sometimes wise black woman, have all been highly profitable films, which may indicate that audiences, especially black audiences, like to see black male actors like Lawrence and Perry, comically cross-dress as stereotypical older black women. One supposes that the Keenan Ivory Wayans’s 2004 comedy White Chicks, where the lead black actors playing undercover cops disguise themselves as stereotypical young white women is the counterstatement to Big Momma, Madea, and other such character comedies. But I will leave that to the scholars and critics to parse. White Chicks was also a highly profitable film.

 

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