Taboos Stifle Debate

April 19, 2013

There's an interesting and smart essay in the AV Club on Tyler Perry and the hesitance of white film critics to really lambaste the filmmaker, who most everyone seems to agree is a technically deficient director who traffics in the sort of broad strokes that critics normally despise. Joshua Alston thinks that this hesitance is not only bad for filmmaking, but also the black community:

But even as Perry’s films have had criticism heaped on them, he’s had the luxury of being bashed solely for his films’ hamfisted writing, paint-by-numbers plotting, and visual blandness. Never before Temptation have this many white critics taken care to blast the troublesome, underlying message of a Perry film, completely independent of its artistic or technical shortcomings. ...

For white critics, it seems, that’s a conversation best left for the black community to handle internally. I don’t entirely fault them for this conclusion. Perry strikes a nerve with his mostly black female audience specifically because of the elements some find most troubling about his films. Gleiberman clearly took issue with Diary’s unsubtle portrayal of Charles, who emotionally eviscerates his wife with such glee, there isn’t a visible sliver of humanity in him. But if that story resonates with black women, even if there’s a substantive debate to have about what it says about black men or relationships, does a white male critic want to be the one to initiate that debate? There are pitfalls for white critics in this scenario: They could tear Perry up and, like Bianco before them, face a backlash that calls them, at best, wrong for the task at hand, and at worst, racist. 

Emphasis mine. It is a fascinating and undeniably true point. Film critics—who are, by and large, white, liberal, and male—have been taught that they have no standing to critique minority culture. Tolerance is not enough: acceptance is the order of the day. And if you step out of line you are tarred as a racist. We've all seen it happen. We all know it's true.

This is what happens when you create a taboo. Debate ceases and conformity sets in. Per the dictates of the politicized life, those who violate said conformity—those who question the taboo's righteousness—are free to be destroyed. You cannot leave a comment nasty enough about a person if you first dismiss them as "racist" (or "homophobic" or "misogynist" or whatever). And the target of your rage has to just sit there and take it because, as we know, error has no rights.

Postscript: It's interesting to note what, exactly, helped shatter the taboo against criticizing Tyler Perry. In his latest film (spoiler!) a woman who strays from her marriage contracts AIDS. In other words, because Perry dared to violate one sanctified principle—"Thou shalt not show there can be consequences for having sex outside of marriage and thou shalt never imply that immoral behavior can lead to AIDS"—another sanctified principle—"Thou shalt not criticize Tyler Perry if you are white"—has fallen. Given the astonishing rate of AIDS infection in the black community ("Black women are 50.5 percent of all females in the District [of Columbia], but are 92.4 percent of the living [women] with HIV cases. And while there was a 31 percent reduction in new HIV diagnoses among whites between 2006 and 2010, there was about a 20 percent increase in such diagnoses among blacks," Jonathan Capehart noted last year about my hometown) one wonders if this is really the thing we should be ganging up on Tyler Perry about.

Published under: Movie Reviews