Tyler Perry, Popeye’s Chicken, And Who We Call ‘Coon’
Black shame has been something of an online talking point in recent weeks. From a chicken sandwich’s bemusing popularity to a movie mogul opening a major studio on the back of a controversial cinematic legacy, big headlines have led to heated conversations about who or what embarrasses us as Black folks. This is an ongoing discussion – about “coonery” and how it affects Black America and Black Americans’ perception of themselves. Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s successes, a stabbing at a Popeye’s chicken, and the resurrection of a blaxploitation cult classic have all offered interesting peeks into how we see the more polarizing aspects of Black popular culture.
But there’s still no clear answer to the question: who, or what, exactly, is a “coon?”
The opening of Tyler Perry’s studio in Atlanta has been hailed as a major event for Black Hollywood; a moment where Black ambition and individuality broke new ground for Black storytelling and ownership of that storytelling. But no Tyler Perry success is an easy thumbs-up; from the moment the writer/director/actor broke through with Diary Of A Mad Black Woman back in 2005, Perry has been a polarizing figure for Black critics and audiences. While beloved by his fanbase, Perry, with his broad folksy comedy characters and church fan messaging, has been blasted as a purveyor of “coonery” for years. Notables like Oprah Winfrey have remained staunchly pro-Perry, while fellow filmmaker Spike Lee was once one of his harshest detractors.
"Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors,” Lee said in an interview with Black Enterprise in 2009. “But I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is 'coonery buffoonery'."
Perry responded to Lee in a 2009 60 Minutes interview. "I would love to read that [criticism] to my fanbase. ... That pisses me off. It is so insulting. It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us."
The idea that what Perry does is “coonery” is complicated and has always raised questions. Perry’s brand of screwball humor (particular in his Madea films and former sitcoms) isn’t all that different from slapstick and over-the-top characters that we’ve seen from the likes of Martin Lawrence and Marlon Wayans. Lawrence’s beloved 90s sitcom Martin had its detractors during its heyday (and now), but there doesn’t appear to be the same level of contempt as compared to Perry; judging from how popular his old show has remained, its fair to suggest that Lawrence is beloved by many of the same people who have seen Perry’s Madea movies as embarrassing. As Perry himself mentioned in his rebuttal to Spike Lee, he speaks to his fanbase—a base that largely goes ignored by many of the more critically-acclaimed Black storytellers in cinema. While auteurs like Lee or Barry Jenkins may speak to a specific type of urban experience, Perry has always been most connected to a sensibility that’s more southern, rural and Black Christian-leaning. The fact that his brand of more countrified broad humor is so unsettling for some Black folks indicates an ever-present sense of shame for country Black-isms--particularly when they’re presented in slapstick comedy. Perry has built his empire on Black audiences, yet certain Black critics have always acted as though that audience doesn’t matter. Who gets the final say on Blackness in entertainment?
There are other reasons people criticize Tyler Perry: a penchant for heavy-handed moralizing in his movies, a tendency towards colorism, questionable labor policies – that’s all valid. It’s just as valid as calling out Spike for the choices he’s made regarding female characters in his films or addressing the colorism of Martin’s Pam jokes. But those specific criticisms aren’t inherently connected to “coonery” and what that uniquely damning insult signifies.
Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name premiered on Netflix in October to widespread acclaim, with the Rudy Ray Moore biopic earning Murphy his best reviews in a decade. The film focuses on Moore’s determination to make his Dolemite comedy character a movie star, independently using family, friends, and associates to get his movie off the ground. Hustling his way up from standup through hit comedy records to actually seeing his movie on the big screen, Moore is portrayed as a symbol of Black individuality and self-actualization. As I was watching his story unfold, I was reminded of the parallels to Perry. Like Perry, Moore and his team wouldn’t really be considered great filmmakers, but also like Perry, Dolemite’s appeal doesn’t really lie in craft or execution—Moore simply told stories that resonated with his particular audience. In one scene in ...My Name, when Moore watches an Indianapolis crowd guffawing at his low-budget blaxploitation spectacle, the sense of pride he feels isn’t just in what he’s accomplished, it's in who he’s doing it for: an audience that wanted Dolemite humor and camp—an audience that existed even within the broader blaxploitation fanbase.
With so many raving about Dolemite Is My Name and Murphy, there’s a question of hindsight being 20/20 and how Black art is often policed through a sense of shame. How many of those applauding this 2019 biopic would have cringed seeing Dolemite in 1975, a jive-talking, pudgy quasi-pimp at the center of a shoddily made flick? Now, that story is being told with reverence and heart, and it speaks to how, once you can put some distance between time and place, it’s easy to see a bigger picture and celebrate the spirit—even when the end result may not be to your taste.
When Popeye’s now-mythic Spicy Chicken Sandwich made its return last week, the online jokes and customer enthusiasm was met with criticism and handwringing from those who obviously felt Black folks were falling into a stereotype over fried chicken. When a news report revealed that someone had died violently at a Popeye’s over an argument while in line, many bemoaned how embarrassing Black folks had supposedly gotten over this sandwich. Of course, there wasn’t a widespread epidemic of chicken sandwich-related violence, it was just an incident that happened at a restaurant. But because the shame was already boiling over in some Black folks, this became a chance to finger-wag the culture for everything from poor eating habits to not supporting Black business to voter apathy. In a society that teaches us racism from the moment we are aware of race, it’s imperative that Black folks un-learn Black shame. And it’s time to stop running to “coon” any time you believe someone fits a stereotype racism taught you to be embarrassed by.
Black folks could stand to be a lot less embarrassed by Black folks.
Who “fits the stereotype” isn’t really what’s most damaging to Black people in America – it’s the fact that these stereotypes exist in the first place. Tyler Perry’s characters weren’t created by some outsider and foisted upon Black audiences from a place of derision; they’re affectionate parodies of his own family, written by and for someone who knows that churchy, southern voice and isn’t so ashamed by it that they can’t have a little fun with it. In the same spirit that we now applaud figures like Moore and southern rap impresarios like Master P (who built an empire with a No Limit Records label that catered to its audience while often being criticized for mediocrity by rap “purists” of the mid-90s). The shame in Popeye’s popularity, the shame in a Madea character, the shame in so much of what we see in Black people—is only there because racism put it there. Before deciding to speak against a Black creator as a “coon,” shouldn’t we be sure to not marginalize an audience? Black art is still Black art even when it doesn’t necessarily speak to your specific Black experience.
And beyond even art, maybe it’s past time that we just stop being so ashamed of Black people.
“Coon” has merit, no doubt. But when it’s tethered to a sense of embarrassment, it can become a weapon of respectability. Being who you are, telling your story, maintaining your voice—those things shouldn’t make you a “coon.” Even if your voice is loud and country, even if your voice is problematic in certain areas, even if your voice doesn’t match my own—you aren’t a “coon” until you begin shucking and jiving for the status quo; not just because you’re being you, regardless of whether they’re watching or not. That’s an important distinction that often gets lost in the haze of embarrassment. Using descriptors like “country” and “ghetto” as pejoratives is an indication that something taught us that these types of Black folks “make us look bad.” Believing that would mean that we’re buying into the lens of other folks. Do we really think Black experiences, Black voices should be shaped by how racism sees us? Because if so, that’s the real shame.
Todd “Stereo” Williams is a writer/editor/media producer based in New York City. An outspoken veteran entertainment journalist, his work has been featured in The Daily Beast, XXL, Ebony and The Undefeated. He's also an accomplished screenwriter and documentarian who's co-produced films such as Exubia and Beautiful Skin.