Let’s start with Tyler Perry.
A long time ago, when I was just wide-eyed girl living in Queens, NY, I would go to the movies. And every season or so, those movies would star black people. I watched Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar, Soul Food, Love Jones, The Best Man and even The Wood, and life was good. Then I went to college, and a move came out called “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” It was OK, no beef. Then another Tyler Perry movie came out. Well, can’t have a good black movie every season, I thought. But then another came out. Then another. Until an entire generation (generation being 10 years for my purposes) had no idea what a non-Tyler Perry black movie was. And real actresses like Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett were forced to act in his movies too—just to get food on the table.
I have my issues with TP, but I will say this: he gave a lot of black actors work, who may not have been able to find it otherwise. And, more importantly, he made a lot of money. It is my belief that at some point the non-TP studios realized, if that Madea stuff can make money, just imagine what would happen if we produced a move that was actually good?? What followed was a season when a bunch of black movies were out around the same time: The Best Man Holiday, Black Nativity, The Butler, Mandela. And that was good.
Tyler Perry reminded movie execs that stories about minority people can be profitable. This fact had already been established, but like the generation who thought TP movies were the only black movies ever to exist, a generation of people hadn’t seen it with their own eyes, and therefore couldn’t believe it to be true.
I think the same thing can be said about Scandal. Scandal wasn’t successful in spite of having an African-American star, I would argue that a large part of that success was because of Kerry Washington. Because the show was making history, it received a greater amount of coverage and instant fan loyalty. I have more thoughts about Scandal and Shondaland, but that’s the point I’m trying to make for now.
As much as I love Scandal, do I think it’s the perfect example of how to utilize minority characters in mainstream media? No. Similarly, do I think Tyler Perry movies accurately portray African American life? Hell no.
But both Tyler Perry and Scandal told the world that stories about minority characters are worthy of investment. So my question is this- who is going to teach that to the publishing industry?