Tyler Perry is big old star at this point. As the straight-talking, cig-smoking, pistol-packing matriarch Madea he’s made millions on the gospel theatre circuit and successfully crossed over into movies with Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Last year he followed it with Why Did I Get Married? And this Friday he’s dropping Meet the Browns. Perry is a big film buff of course. A while ago we spoke with him about five key African American movies that everyone should have in their library. Here are his choices. (Check our recent list of great African American actors, too.)
The first movie I ever saw was The Wiz. Gosh, I couldn’t have been more than six or seven when this thing came out. I was living in New Orleans and saw it at the Gallo Theater. I remember dancing up and down the aisles, man. That was just amazing to me. I was bowled over by the colors in it, the sets, the actors … Michael Jackson was my favorite. I loved the song “Ease On Down the Road.” The Wiz inspired me to write musicals, like my first success I Know That I’ve Been Changed. It’s too bad that you don’t see many musicals now, but I’m still a fan.
It’s the Billie Holiday story. Seeing black actors like Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams onscreen had a profound effect on me. I thought, “Wow! Look how great they look on screen.” Also, I’m a huge fan of jazz. So to see it and hear it and feel and almost taste it was amazing. There’s one scene where the meaning of the music really comes through: She gets off the bus to use the bathroom. But she was in the South and they wouldn’t let her use the bathroom. So that night she sings “Strange Fruit” in the club. I was walking around singing that song and didn’t know what it meant. But that movie made me listen to the words.
It’s from the 1970s, but I only saw that for the first time last year. I was blown away. It stars James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll. She plays a welfare mother with five or six children. They fall in love and it’s just a ghetto love story. It’s a movie about real, true down-home love. It’s different from other movies that depict the ghetto in that the realness of this woman’s struggle with her children and her struggle to love and be loved and have this man love her was very … comforting. The things that they went through reminded me of family members of mine. That’s what made me relate to it so much.
Like Lady Sings the Blues, here we are with a movie with a predominantly black cast and you’re seeing them on screen in this story of family love and family secrets and how they can tear your life apart. There’s a quote from The Color Purple somewhere in everything that I’ve done – including my new movie. In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, one of the characters who has become a drug addict returns to the church during a gospel service. That’s totally borne out of that moment in The Color Purple where Shug sings “Speak, Lord.” I still quote this movie in everything I do.
Baker was an entertainer in the 1920s and 1930s. She was the first African-American woman to go to France and become this huge, huge star as a singer and dancer. She came back to America and was boycotted because she got into an argument with the gossip columnist Walter Winchell. I’m such a fan of that music and that time period, and it’s an amazing story. Baker went from living in a boxcar in St. Louis to being one of the richest colored women of her day. That movie introduced me to her and educated me. That’s the great thing about movies – they can make you aware of people you didn’t know about.
- C. Bottomley