Tyler Terry’s Hollywood: Diary of a Mad Black… Mogul
Tyler Perry wrote his own success story… and the plot is still evolving.
Success is a slippery word. Ask a dozen people to define it, and you’ll receive 12 different answers, none of them wrong. Take a poll on how to find it, and hundreds of paths will suddenly appear amongst the trees. The right trail is always changing, multiplying and contracting—different for each of us. See? Slippery.
So how would you define success for a poor black boy growing up in 1970s New Orleans? Would you lower expectations if you knew his father was so abusive he once attempted suicide to escape the beatings? If you knew he was molested by several different people in his community, would that alter how you judged his progress through life? For this boy, success might simply mean surviving childhood. Maybe, if he’s lucky, he’ll find the path that leads to being a kind man with a decent job. Nothing special.
“Nothing special” is not good enough for Tyler Perry. Perry took his own route to success, if only because the easiest paths were blocked by his turbulent childhood. But his upbringing also gave him the tools he needed to hack through the trees and underbrush as he blazed his own trail.
This Too Shall Pass
Perry’s experiences were enough to break most people. The pain and anger grew inside him like a fire, eating away at him. It wasn’t until he caught an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show championing the therapeutic benefits of journaling that Perry’s outlook began to change. But even on the private pages of his diary, he couldn’t be truly honest about his tragic upbringing. Fearful others might read his words, he invented characters who revealed his experiences and feelings. In the process, he let the hate and venom flow through his pen. He was still livid, but he had a place to siphon off the bile when it threatened to overwhelm him.
“Journaling gets it out of you and on to paper; it is a catharsis;” Perry says. “But it wasn’t until a friend found his diary that something clicked.
“Man, Tyler, this is a really good play.”
Suddenly, Perry looked at his words in a new light and a different kind of fire settled in his stomach. He left New Orleans for Atlanta—not exactly a hotbed of performance art, but Perry’s path to success is not one well-travelled.
‘Why Does This Make Me Angry?’
Perry didn’t find instant success in Atlanta either—far from it. He took jobs as a bill collector, a hotel housekeeper and a used car salesman, among others. He sometimes lived out of his car to make ends meet. I Know I’ve Been Changed debuted in 1992, costing him his life savings of $12,000 to produce. It was widely panned and sparsely attended before quickly closing. Over the next six years, Perry constantly tweaked the play, tightening the action and revealing his themes of self-respect and redemption more clearly. By 1998, Perry was so discouraged by his constant failings that he was ready to give up.
“I was losing faith. In those six years of struggling, I’d really gotten to a point of thinking this is never going to work,” Perry remembers. “But every time I thought that, there was someone else who’d come along and help my dream find a new life.”
“The great thing about writing is that every character has a motivation,” Perry says. “When I started to track down characters’ motivations, I started to do the same thing to my own motivations. Why does this bother me so much? Why does that make me angry? So once I tracked down motivations back to the root, it allowed me to untie a lot of the anger and release the sting.”
The root, Perry found, was his father. Shortly before he played to sold-out shows in 1998, he called his dad to tell him the harm he had caused, the anger he had hatched inside his son. Instead of fighting back, his father said only, “I love you,” before hanging up the phone. Perry knew immediately something was different.
Writing What He Knows
Perry was reaching hundreds of thousands of people across the South with his plays, but to get his message out to the masses, he’d have to tackle Hollywood. In 2005, the film adaptation of Diary of a Mad Black Woman was released. It grossed more than $50 million, 10 times what it cost to produce the movie. The project was a success monetarily, but it also laid the groundwork for Perry’s popularity. Audiences fell in love with the grumpy, tell-it-like-it-is, tough-loving grandmother Madea, played by Perry himself. A fan favorite from Perry’s plays, the character became the focal point of three films, but has appeared in six of the 10 movies Perry has starred in. She also appears in the TBS series Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.
Some have criticized Perry, saying his characters invoke racial stereotypes that demean African-Americans. Spike Lee reportedly described Perry’s work as “coonery and buffoonery.” Byron Pitts of CBS’s 60 Minutes (read more about Byron Pitts on SUCCESS.com) read the quote to Perry during a 2009 interview. Perry responded, “That pisses me off. It’s attitudes like that that make Hollywood think these people don’t exist, and that’s why there’s no material speaking to them—speaking to us.”
Perry says Madea combines elements of the strong women of his childhood. “I don’t know if any culture is like the black culture when it comes to the woman,” he says. “[The woman] is at times the mother and father, she is the strength, the love and the corrector. That is the way it was in my house. My mother was a major role model. Just her care and love for people and how she took care of all of us. How her heart only beat one way; she only knew love.”
Do One Thing Well
Now Perry, 42, is among the Hollywood elite, ranked No. 19 on Forbes’ Celebrity 100 List of most powerful people in entertainment, and No. 3 on the list based on his earnings, estimated at $130 million (behind U2 and Oprah Winfrey). His movies make money, and he captures the attention of the African-American demographic like no one else.
He remains wary of Hollywood, going so far as to build his own state-of-the-art studio in Atlanta so he can remain close to home.
Convention aside, Perry believes the secret to his career is simple, something anyone can apply to their own pursuits. For “someone who is trying to be successful—who has an idea and doesn’t know if it will happen or work—you have to find one thing,” Perry says. “I know people are jacks-of-all-trades and do a million things, but find one thing and do it so well that it affords you the opportunity to do all the other things.”
“Success for me has clearly been about being able to live in the present—live fully and in this moment,” Perry says. “Learning how to come down into the moment and really appreciate it and enjoy it, that’s what success is. When you can do that, every moment of your life will be successful. Whatever you’re working on, whatever your business, whatever you’re trying to be, if you can be fully in the moment, I think that will change your life.”
Edited by Ade Daramy
Originally published at http://www.success.com