From Misery to Mastery
Even with a string of six hit films, a sitcom deal worth $100 million, and the ability to do anything he'd like in Hollywood, Tyler Perry was still haunted by his past.
"I had just finished a couple of movies and had been famous for a long time, among black people," says Perry, whose latest film The Family That Preys, opens this week. "When I walked around, I got all this support, high-fives and all this stuff."
He was the most famous African-American star Caucasians had never heard of, until he started appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was there he began telling his rags-to-riches tale, one that included an abusive father—Emmitt, a carpenter—while growing up in New Orleans.
"He used his hands to pour concrete and hammer nails," Perry told O Magazine last year. "He also used those hands to beat me. My father—a man with a third-grade education who was orphaned at 2 and sent to work in the fields at 5—understood only the physical. He thought he could beat the softness out of me and make me hard like him."
Instead, the abuse almost led Perry to kill himself as a teenager. He still has the scar on his left wrist as evidence of his suicide attempt.
But even then, he had an inkling of hope. He liked to draw—and get lost in his own imagination. He had no desire to follow in his father's footsteps and work construction.
He found more solace with the women in his life—mother Maxine (a pre-school teacher) and his Scripture-quoting grandmother. "Women are usually the center of everything in the household," he laughs. "You don't say, 'I'm going to my grandfather's house; you say I'm going to my grandmother's house.'"
Observing strong women eventually led Perry to prefer writing female roles to male roles. "Growing up on my mother's hip, I learned a great deal about women," he tells CT Movies. "They have so many colors and so many shades. They can be so much more vulnerable than men. Women are the richest characters to write."
'Miserable and unhappy'
While working as a bill collector in the early '90s, Perry was inspired—by Oprah on her TV show—to write down his thoughts as an act of catharses. At first he fictionalized his life story, to protect himself from scrutiny. His first play, I Know I've Been Changed, covered the theme of surviving child abuse. With true entrepreneurial spirit, Perry then took his $12,000 in savings and drove to Atlanta to rent out a theater and stage the production.
Unfortunately, Changed didn't do as well as he hoped. By the mid-'90s, Tyler Perry was sleeping in shelters and his Geo Metro—a tight squeeze for a 6-foot-5 man.
"The first 28 years of my life I was miserable and unhappy," says Perry, now 38. "I did anything I thought I was big and bad enough to do. If I was hurt, I wanted everyone else to hurt. So I started building my life on unforgiveness and anger and frustration."
Still, Perry notes that God was present in his life even then. "It was a miserable time, but I was still believing in God."
The spiritual conflict only spurred his desire to tell honest, gritty stories—from a Christian perspective, but with unflinching, raw candor. "If more Christians showed their battle scars, people would be more inclined to believe that they can be born again," he says. "That's why I don't want to write stories with 'perfect Christians,' because it is so unreal, it is so untrue. We all sin. We all fall short. We all make mistakes."
Through a grassroots outreach to area churches, Perry's story started resonating with religious crowds, and his fanbase began to grow. His play sold out the House of Blues in Atlanta, which led to several massively-successful tours of his plays. African-American audiences, which reportedly spend 8 billion dollars on entertainment annually, became enthusiastic fans of the brand Tyler Perry was selling.