Lance Gross and Jurnee Smollett-Bell in Temptation. (Lionsgate/KC Bailey)
The plot of Tyler Perry’s latest film, Temptation, goes something like this: woman becomes unhappy in her marriage, decides to have an affair with a bad guy (after he borderline rapes her on a plane because Women Are Like That), bad guy is a drug addict, violent and HIV-positive to boot, woman ends up alone, diseased and unhappy, while her ex-husband finds happiness with a more virtuous woman. I mean, insert some weird chase scenes in a crappy pickup truck and some admittedly great costuming. But add on the downside bad acting (from no less than Kim Kardashian) and really terrible editing and I’ve mostly saved you the $14, if you were inclined to check it out. Probably you were already dissuaded by the terrible reviews in those places that even bothered to cover the film. Everyone seemed pretty convinced that the implication of the conclusion—that infidelity “deserves” punishment, and the punishment of HIV specifically—was complete hogwash.
And so comes an interesting meta-piece from the A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston on what he calls “white critics’ fear of offending the black community” in criticizing Perry. Alston is himself black. He writes that white—and frankly mostly male—critics who have been giving Perry too much of a pass until Temptation came along. Its awful politics on the borderline rape and HIV are what opened the space to trash Perry, Alston argues. Prior to that, as Alston described one critic’s experience, Perry’s work was treated as “a black thing” that white critics wouldn’t understand. So white critics resisted the urge to comment on Perry’s politics. Instead they’d criticize him—as I do above—for his bad art, on how sloppily his direction and dialogue are, for example.
I’m in lockstep with Alston on the matter of white criticism of Tyler Perry being often less-than-rigorous. I’d even take it further than he does. I can’t say, reading the coverage of Temptation Alston cites, that it felt that anyone but Lindy West really addressed the politics of women’s bodies in this film all that well, though Alston identifies the politics of women’s bodies as “the zeitgeist.” (I have a few women friends who write about rape and oh, I dunno, abortion, who seem to be having trouble getting white male zeitgeisty attention.) But I also agree when Alston explains that in practical effect, until Temptation, “criticism of Perry has been left to black critics and academics whose work doesn’t have the wide reach that mainstream white critics command, or the same ability to shape the dialogue about a film.” My logic just doesn’t follow him to the end that what this calls for is more white people talking about race, effectively appropriating the work those critics and academics have done for their own criticism.
For one thing, prior evidence suggests that even where the subject of, say, black women is taken seriously by these mainstream white critics, the result can be less than desirable. Take what David Edelstein of New York wrote about Precious, a few years back. First, he referred to Gabourey Sidibe’s face as “squashed” and her body as “transgressive.” Then, in the course of defending himself, he stuffed his foot further down his throat in observing that Sidibe had a “broad” body like, you know, Angela Bassett.
I pick on this example often because it was so egregious. But I don’t even think you have to believe that all critics would write things like that, or even that Edelstein meant badly when he did, to believe them indicative of cluelessness. It’s fair to say that it is understandable cluelessness. After all, the analysis offered by “mainstream white critics” is, actually, harmed by the bubble they tend to live in. If all the people you talk to and read share certain characteristics like race or gender, which for better or for worse, affect experience, you are going to end up with a blinkered perspective on anything. That said, if you live in thin New York, I guess it’s possible to call Angela Bassett broad.
I said I guess.
Anyway, there’s a name for this blinkering effect: it’s called “group polarization.” (Forgive the link to the often-wrong Cass Sunstein, but it is a remarkably clear exposition of the phenomenon.) And that goes for groups where the discussants are only men or only women, and only white or only black. And it spans every subject: Tyler Perry or Wes Anderson, Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, Toni Morrison or Philip Roth. The need for diversity in journalism, or literature or criticism is often presented as an abstract political obligation. But in fact it’s just a call for a better, deeper discussion.
So, putting it bluntly: the best way for white critics to comment on things like Tyler Perry is to get the hell out of the way most of the time. To listen and engage the work of people of other backgrounds. And then opine, in a way that thoughtfully engages other people’s work and tries to bring them into the conversation.
Let me put my money where my mouth is on that front. Latoya Peterson, at Jezebel and at Salon, has been writing about the problems with Perry’s work, as well as her ambivalence about discussing them in white spaces. So has my good friend and excellent critic Roxane Gay. Here is Ta-Nehisi responding to Spike Lee critiquing Perry. Here is Alyssa Rosenberg, who is white but who has for a long time been pretty good at incorporating diverse perspectives when she’s in cultural analysis mode. Their points aren’t all in agreement with each other, but reading all of them—rather than the white men Alston cites—one gets a much richer debate than white men seem capable of offering on their own.
I get that Alston’s quibble is that some of these writers are either not “mainstream” or not “critical.” But actually Jezebel and Salon and The Atlantic are pretty mainstream, and the discussion of popular culture has, at this point, moved far beyond the realm of mere staff critics. And thank God, I guess I’m saying, for that. Why not just accept that the whole enterprise just needs more voices, and acknowledge the ones that already exist? Rather than continue to cement white men as the people primarily able to speak to the meaning of movies?
In rape tragedies, Jessica Valenti writes, the shame is ours.