Photo by Nobuhiro Hosoki
At this year’s unusual Oscar ceremony, actor/director/producer Tyler Perry gave a memorable speech when he accepted the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his work feeding and aiding others during the pandemic. Past honorees include Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, Harry Belafonte, Debbie Reynolds and Geena Davis.
The 51-year-old filmmaker made an impassioned plea for unity and called on people to “refuse hate” and lift others up. He pointed to his late mother’s optimistic outlook despite a life of physical abuse, as an inspiration for him to move forward with life and helping others. In the following Q&A which had been conducted with Perry a couple of years ago, he addressed his own pained roots and how he overcame difficult beginnings.
Q: What was life like in your New Orleans home — and why was life not peaceful?
TP: Growing up was difficult for many reasons, being poor and disenfranchised black people in rural Louisiana, where my mother and father are both from. I was born to them and moved to New Orleans. It was very tough because my father was a man with a third grade education who was just a couple of generations out of slavery himself. In order for me to tell you about me, I have to tell you more about about him. Everything that he went through was pretty difficult as well. I didn’t find this out until I was much older.
My father was found in a drainage canal by a white man on a horse when he was very young. I say “white man” to paint this whole picture of what rural Louisiana was like for him at this time. He was about two years old then, and he and his sister and brother were brought to a girl(teenager) to raise. Her name was May, whose father had just been born out of slavery and he had a grandfather who was a slave. And everything that they would do to these kids, when they’d do something wrong, was to beat them. That’s all they’d do — beat them.
My father had a third grade education because around that time he was big enough and strong enough to work in the fields with the rest of the family. He didn’t get much of an education. And here I come, being born into this family dynamic of a wounded man and a wounded woman.
My grandmother died when she was 13 years old and my grandfather had raised her. So they didn’t know how to raise kids. They certainly didn’t know how to raise a creative child. And for my father, I was a very disappointing figure in his life. He did not mince words when he spoke about me, when he spoke to me. He said all that he felt and all that he wanted to say. He was abusive physically, abusive verbally. It was a challenge growing up in that time.
Q: As a child, how did you deal with that?
TP: My mother, her father, her grandfather, her great-grandfather, they were all ministers, so we went to church. We always went to church. We didn’t have therapy, and at this time, we couldn’t afford to get into a Range Rover and go to see a therapist. We didn’t have any of that.
What we had was the church, and that was our relief. I could see my father, because he was very disturbed — And see my mother being beaten and belittled during the week. But on Sunday, we’d go to church and there was God and there was faith, and I wanted to know this God and this faith that made my mother feel so great and feel so strong, and feel so empowered. So for me, the way I was able to make it through was church, was God, was faith. Had I not had that, I don’t know where I’d be now.
Q: You used your imagination to escape the physical abuse, tell me some of the places that you would escape to?
TP: Here’s the thing: what the Bible says is all things work together for your good. Sometimes my father would be screaming at the top of his lungs at me or hitting me, or in school I’m being bullied, or something was going on. And I could leave myself and in my mind, go into a better place, where I was running, and running in the grass, running in the park. And I had this very vivid memory of being very young and all the hell breaking loose in the house, leaving myself in my mind, going up to this place where I was just running in the grass.
One day, about three or four years ago, I was walking in my backyard and I realized that that was the place that I had dreamed of as a little boy, in my imagination. So out of the trauma, my imagination became extremely vivid, extremely powerful, extremely colorful. So that’s where I go to write today. Lots of people wonder how I’m able to write so much so quickly. I can literally disassociate, be in a world and write and create for hours and hours, just as I was doing as a kid.
Q: Was there is a specific place that you used to go to escape the abuse from your father? Could you describe it.
TP: Under the house. We had built this place under the house, right outside of the back door. In New Orleans, all the houses — all these “shotgun” houses, meaning you can shoot a shotgun from the front door to the back and the bullet will go straight through all the rooms — you had to go through everybody’s rooms to get to another room.
It was about four or five feet off the ground and I had built this little cubbyhole under it. I painted it robin’s egg blue. I don’t know where I found the paint, but somebody was painting something. That was my place to go away, my sanctuary. I would go in and close the door. I could hear the yelling through the floor boards above. But that was my haven to get away and just close myself off from all of it.
Q: How long would you stay in there?
TP: I’d stay for hours and hours. My mother liked to play bingo. She would always go play bingo all the time. Now I didn’t know that bingo meant she was going out to have a good time some of the time. But sometimes I’d wait for her to come home. Especially on Friday nights, when he would come home completely crazed in his eyes. I would hide under there until she came home because that’s where I was protected.
Q: How bad did it get with your father?
TP: Being a sensitive child, I would take on the burden of my father. The things he would say to her, I would feel. The things he would say to me, I would feel them 10 times harder. This man would hit you with anything he could get his hands on, like vacuum cleaners, extension cords — whatever.
He’d say, “I’m gonna teach you.” Looking at him now, I really feel he was bipolar, undiagnosed, and didn’t know it. When he was drinking, he’d get much worse. So I feel like there was some sort of — something going on in his head that wasn’t quite right. But those were really, really dark and difficult times to get through.
Q: When you saw your mother suffering, did you ever fear that she might not survive?
TP: Oh yeah. My grandmother died when she was thirteen, so I worried. It was horrible.
Q: You worried about that every day?
TP: Every day. Even up until the day she died I worried about her. This was in 2009. I was worried about her. Because she loved this man, she loved him fiercely. She stayed with him all those years. I often wondered, what was it in her would not allow her to move on.
I was successful, I had built a house for her, she could live anywhere in the world. At this time she was suffering from complications of diabetes, yet she loved this man. One day I realized that she never got to feel worthy. She never understood that she was worthy of more than what she had. That was such a profound moment for me when I understood that my mother never, ever felt worthy of true love, of real kindness, even though she was a beautiful, kind and compassionate woman.
Q: When your mother was dying, you asked her if Emmitt was your real dad. What was her answer?
TP: I had been asking her ever since I was a kid. There was something in me that felt like this man, the way he looked at me. Listen, children know. There’s something in me — I feel like it was God. She didn’t know I had a gift. But all my life I asked and she said, “Baby, I hate to tell you this, but that’s your father.” On her deathbed, I felt to ask her one more time. She said “I hate to tell you, but he’s your father.”
Q: You went and had your brother take a paternity test. What was the result?
TP: The one I did with my brother, we do not have the same father. I know he is his, because he’s the spitting image.
Q: Then you went to your father and did a test with Emmitt, and it came back that he’s not your biological father. What did that do to you as an individual?
TP: It made me sad for my mother. And it made me happy for her, too. But it left me with way more questions because my mother was very private. Here’s the thing: you have to understand this. Either one of two things was happening. In my imagination, she had a wonderful and amazing love with someone that loved her in return. She had that. That’s what I would love to think.
However, I’m reminded of a story that happened right before I was born, where someone had broken into the house. She never talked about it. And she was scared to death to be alone. There are so many different scenarios that could have happened. I don’t think my mother would have deliberately lied to me had she known. Maybe she couldn’t because she was such a peacemaker. Maybe she couldn’t deal with the fact of me knowing and that she was dying. And thinking that I wouldn’t take care of him if I knew. Well, I know and I’m still taking care of him.
Q: Did you ever find out who your real father is?
TP: I have no idea. I don’t even know where to start. My mother was so closed. I even looked up an old boyfriend. I went to the doctor and did some tests because I wanted to be sure. Since I don’t know this man’s history, his physical history, I wanted to find out and make sure. I did the colonoscopy earlier, and things I was supposed to do at 50 I did a lot earlier because I had no idea. I had my heart checked to see if everything’s okay because not having the medical history is difficult. But it’s really okay.
Here’s how my life works: I’ll be walking down the street and someone will stop me and say, “Hey, can I talk to you? You look just like me. My father was so-and-so and so-and-so.” This story will come to me, if it’s meant to. But I’m saying, if I could wake my mother up for three minutes, we’d have a really good conversation, for sure.
Let me just say this: I don’t hold this against her. I really, really don’t, because parents are flawed people. And I love this woman dearly. She could have told me, and the very thought that — even if she knew and couldn’t tell me, the very thought that she couldn’t tell me breaks my heart, because I would have been okay. I would have totally been okay knowing that she had had someone. She was 24 years old.
Q: If you wrote a letter to your mom now, what would it say?
TP: The letter would start off saying, “Wish you were here.” I know she is, I feel her. But I have one regret with her. There was a moment when she was dying where she looked at me and she said “I’m tired.” I talked her out of it. It was the beginning of a deathbed confession that I wasn’t ready to handle.
That is the moment that I regret the most in my life. When somebody is dying and they say they’re tired, listen to every word. Because I talked her out of what she wanted to say. She just stared at me. She said “Okay, baby.” I said, “You’re gonna be fine, and we’re gonna pray, and everything’s gonna be fine.” And she just looked at me and said “Okay, baby.” She didn’t say anything, she just kept staring at me. And I knew she wanted to say something. I would ask in that letter is, “What did you want to say to me?”
Q: You still take care of your father financially, to this day. How did you ever find it in your heart to forgive this man?
TP: Because it was killing me. It wasn’t killing him, it was killing me. He was sleeping like a baby. Sometimes evil people can just go to sleep like nothing happened. But the truth is, it was killing me and I had to.
The first steps to forgiving him was finding out more about him. We think our parents are perfect. They should have known better — sometimes they should have. But realizing how he came up, how that woman raised him and what he had gone through, I still can’t, to this day, figure out the total story. I’ve given up trying to find out, because he mumbles. Third grade education, won’t tell — “You don’t know what happened to me”. That’s all I know.
Knowing enough of his history has allowed me to have the opportunity to say, “You’ve had your life. I get it. Something happened to you that was tragic, and you tried to pass it on to me. I’m going to stop right here because I’m not passing it on to my children. But I get it. I am going to take care of you because my mother asked me to.”
There was never a time we were worried about a meal. He always brought the money home. We always had food. So I’m giving him what he gave me, which is easy. The money is the easy part. You want the relationship, a relationship with me would be pretty darn cool. But, so be it.
Q: You give this massive inspiration for people in the United States and many places in the world, especially for people that have tried to take their own lives and haven’t been successful. Is it true that you attempted to take your own life due to the abuse?
TP: Yes. Oh, yeah. Twice. Once I took a bunch of pills and woke up with a headache.
Q: Which was very lucky. In a selfish way, many of us are lucky that you did not succeed.
TP: I went through a struggle trying to figure it out. I would have missed the best days of my life. Everything got so sweet on the other side of the pain that had I succeeded, not only would my life have been affected, but this whole butterfly effect thing. There are thousands of people that are working for me now, their lives would have been affected. Or even the people who just laughed at something that I had done on film, or enjoyed my movies, their lives have been affected.
When I tell anybody who’s going through that, at the moment if it’s that dark in your life, hold on a little while longer. Because I’m telling you, when it gets to that dark, you’re just about to [make it], just about there. It was at that moment that I thought, I’m done, why go on? This is too much to take, This man is too horrific. There’s nothing positive, there’s no love. That’s all over. Why am I going on living? But now, looking back on it, I thank God and Jesus and all the angels that I [am alive today].
Q: When you thought life couldn’t get any worse for you, then you were sexually abused by four individuals outside your family. How did that affect you?
TP: It still hurts and I don’t care what anybody says. Sexual abuse is something that guts s your soul, it takes it outside of your body, it drags it out of you. I was such a little boy walking through that and very confused about what was going on in my life, what was going on in my head, because of what these people had done. Because these people that I trusted, that were authority figures, what they were supposed to do to protect me. No, it was very, very confusing. We were conditioned that this was just normal. This is normal. You’re a boy., you’re normal.
Another person who didn’t get it — he was two years old when his brothers and people started introducing him to sex. He didn’t get it, he was laughing about it. The reason we got on the subject was because he was going through a lot of trouble and problems and he didn’t know why. He was extremely promiscuous and going through a lot of things and didn’t know why.
I started talking to him about it one day, and before I knew it, he’s in tears. I take him back to the moment in his life when it happened, and he still didn’t realize something was wrong. “But that’s normal, I’m a boy. That’s normal.” Until I made him see a two-year-old. I said, “Look at this baby. Look at his face, and you tell me that that’s okay.” It changed everything and helped him with his own life.
It was really difficult and painful to move through. It has far-reaching effects. But the thing about it is, what I found is helping me more now is being able to counsel people like him and others and say “Listen, recognize it,.”
I was talking with somebody about this earlier today. He’s 57 and still going through the repercussions of when they were eight. So when you grab hold of it and you understand it and you really look at it for what it is, that’s when you can start to effect change and realize that there are behaviors in your life based on those horrible moments as a little boy or a little girl. Once you do that, you begin to change your life. And for me, I’m grateful for that.
Q: Four different individuals at four different times in your life. Did you tell anybody about it at the time?
TP: No. no. Children have an ability to take on the burden of responsibility and that is the trick here.
Q: For many people who suffer, it brings them hope to know there was somebody else like them, that was able to get through it, and be determined to move on and to turn a negative into a positive.
TP: The most difficult is telling a child. Now I really get it, because I have a three-year-old, who is my spitting image. He is the most beautiful creature and when I look in his eyes, and I’m holding him and hugging him, and telling him how much I love him, there’s something in me that’s being healed. Because I didn’t hear it as a little boy. I couldn’t imagine saying the things to him that this man said to me.
Q: How much has your son, Aman, changed you as a person? It’s another full circle for you.
TP: The best way to sum it up is this: we were walking on the beach over the holidays, and he was walking behind me and kept jumping. He kept jumping, jumping, jumping behind me, just like a three-year-old would do. And I was getting annoyed, it was hot, I wanted to sit down. So I turned around and I go, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m walking in your footsteps, Papa.” Yeah. So. Wiped me out. I got on my knees at eye level to him — I love talking to him eye to eye — and I said to him, “Come on, let’s take a walk to the end of the beach.” We walked down, hand in hand, get to the end of the beach, and I said “Listen, we both left our own footprints. I left mine and you left yours. We all have our own path to walk.”
I think about the path that my father walked, his footsteps, and me not wanting to be in his footsteps. Not wanting to be in his footsteps so much I changed my name, because I was his namesake. I didn’t want to be anything like him, to have this little three-year-old — he didn’t even know what he said to me.
But it made me emotional and it was very healing for me. He is my healer. Every bit of love that I’m giving him, every bit of correction that I’m giving him, every hug, every smile, every time my face lights up when he walks in a room. There’s something in me the little boy that I was feels like he’s getting the same thing.
Q: In a lot of your films, you employ the theme of worthiness. Not just empowerment, but worthiness. In Madea Goes to Jail, you have a prostitute in the film and she’s shouting out that she wants love. You’re basically telling audiences through the character that she is worthy of it. Everybody gets so much from these films.
TP: When I look back at the body of work, I go, “Wow, I was talking to my mother.” In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, when she’s with the music man, it was my hope that my mother would have found someone to love her. Subconsciously, the writer and the kid was speaking out. When I’m writing female characters, I’m leaning on my mother and what it felt like to be this tall, watching all these things happen to her. All of those moments became my tunnel which everything has flowed through in my life.
So as far as crossover and other people getting it, listen: forgiveness, family, love, neighbors, are universal things. So the way that the story is told, I tell this from my lens which is an African American lens with lots of colorful people, colorful characters in my life that have been amazing.
Madea was a very real person to me growing up, and to a lot of people. This woman was very real. She was strong, she was a big woman, she said what was on her mind, she didn’t make any apologies for it. She was full of wisdom, but she’ll beat the hell out of ya at the same time.
All the work embodied speaking to her. I got the best gift I’ve ever gotten from one of my audience members who had seen one of the movies. She said, “You did in an hour and a half what we have been trying to do for 12 years. My sister is leaving an abusive relationship.” So you never know where the spark is going to come, what is going to register.
What I’m try to do with the work is just hold up a mirror. Not for everyone, but for the ones who relate to it. But what I found is that it’s not just African Americans, it is about, more often than not, a lot of film is speaking to us about class, classism rather than racism.
Q: You’ve been criticized by some filmmakers who say, “Tyler’s characters are reverting to racial stereotypes.” Are they saying it because there’s envy about class that you’re addressing?
TP: If you take this back to Zorah [Neale] Hurston and Langston Hughes, there was a debate between the two of them and they were really going at it. She was saying that he said that she was a new version of the “darkie” because she spoke with the Southern dialect. Her characters spoke with the Southern slang and they weren’t sophisticated. Whereas Langston Hughes, from the Harlem Renaissance, was the epitome of sophistication.
Well, you’ve got Spike [Lee], whose parents were a jazz musician and an educator. I come from a carpenter who was a subcontractor and my mother worked at a community center taking care of little kids. They come from rural Louisiana, so my stories would definitely be different from what theirs are.
But here’s the problem that we’re facing in this country, especially black people: everybody wants to put a value on what black is. “My black is more valuable than your black.” Which is insulting to so many people, because what you’re saying to me is that my mother, my grandmother, all of those people. My uncle who still drinks and eats watermelon — his story and life is not as important as the black doctor who is an educator. Trying to figure out what black is okay to be acceptable to be shown to the world.
Here’s where I was. I come into this business, into film. There was no representation of us in television and film. And I am the only one out there. And then I had all these filmmakers and everybody going “What’s he doing? What’s this about?” Then they’ll go to my basket and they’ll say “Well, wait a minute. That’s not a representation of us. This is horrible! This ism’t us. What’s wrong with him? He’s a coon, He’s a buffoon! He’s not representing us!”
There wasn’t a representation of all of us, right? So here we are. Cut to today, where you’ve got Lisa Ray. Donald Glover. You’ve got Ryan Coogler. and Ava Duvernay. You’ve got all these beautiful stories being told. And everybody is being represented. Now you have the choice of saying “Tyler, I don’t really care for that, but I’m going to go see this.” Everybody gets a chance to see themselves represented one way or another.
I was on the front line of that. There were many people who came before me, but there I was, ten years in those rooms fighting. I said Listen why doesn’t this person get a chance? Why aren’t there any black people around this table? I keep showing you from box office to box office to box office that black people want to see us on film and represented in television around the world.
I find myself battling these people in the room and then I come out of the room and I have to fight us.
Q: Without you, there’s no Black Panther, no Precious, there’s no other narrative we’re talking about, nobody owns the African American. I think you made it clear. Nobody has a monopoly on the African American narrative.
TP: There should be many narratives.
Q: The characters show many narratives.
TP: I don’t want to feel like I’m taking full responsibility for that. There were a lot of people before me.