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'Maxine's Baby' is a documentary chronicling the life of Hollywood mogul Tyler Perry

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If there's a main takeaway from the new documentary "Maxine's Baby: The Tyler Perry Story," it's that Perry's story is like nothing else in Hollywood history.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MAXINE'S BABY: THE TYLER PERRY STORY")

MICHAEL PASEORNEK: The thing that's amazing about Tyler is he broke every rule.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He is an actor, writer, director, producer - I'm going to say it - entertainment mogul.

CHANG: The film chronicles Perry's life from childhood abuse to finding success on the Black theater circuit, which then translated to the TV and movie screens, telling stories of family strife and redemption to underserved Black audiences. But the film also acknowledges the division in those audiences. Where some saw comforting tributes to the Black family and church, others saw offensive stereotypes. The film's writer, producer and co-director is Gelila Bekele. She's also Tyler Perry's former partner and shares a child with him. And when I spoke with Bekele recently, along with her co-director Armani Ortiz, I asked her if it was a challenge to film a documentary about a man she already knew so well.

GELILA BEKELE: In this case, you know, of course, I started this with a loving gaze of really admiring Tyler for his vision and what he's doing. Of course, the challenge is for me to take myself out of it.

CHANG: Right.

BEKELE: You know, I had to really make sure I'm looking at this lens as if I don't know him.

CHANG: Was that possible?

BEKELE: I had to make it possible, and that also meant, you know, us diving deep and understanding his fan base and why his work resonates so much with them as well as inviting his critics to really share their perspective and why they criticize his work.

CHANG: Well, let's talk more about that. I do want to get into why Perry's work has divided audiences, including Black audiences. Let's start with probably his most well-known and iconic creation, and that is the character Madea.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN")

LISA MARCOS: (As Brenda Marcos) Who are you?

TYLER PERRY: (As Mabel "Madea" Simmons) Who are you?

MARCOS: (As Brenda Marcos) I'm the owner of this house.

PERRY: (As Mabel "Madea" Simmons) Wrong answer. My granddaughter Helen is the owner of this house. You the [expletive]. You ain't got no power or no deed.

MARCOS: (As Brenda Marcos) Did you do this? This is Vera Wang.

PERRY: (As Mabel "Madea" Simmons) Who that is? She do nails? I need to get my nails did.

MARCOS: (As Brenda Marcos) That's it. I'm calling the police.

PERRY: (As Mabel "Madea" Simmons) I ain't scared of no po-po. Call the po-po, [expletive].

CHANG: OK, depending on who you talk to, Madea - you know, she's either a tribute to a Black, Southern matriarch or a crass caricature of that same thing, right? A writer at the New Yorker, Hilton Als, once said this about Madea on our air.

HILTON ALS: She really is part of this tradition that has always been a sort of entertainment staple - loudmouth, presumably strong but slightly ditzy Black woman whose comedy is really based on the fact that she doesn't really know what she's doing half the time.

CHANG: But Perry - he has called Madea a tribute to his own mother, a character who gives comfort and wisdom. So let me ask you both this. How do you see this whole debate about Madea and what she represents?

ARMANI ORTIZ: You know, when I first started and Gelila, you know, brought me onto the project, I never saw one of his plays live. So we would go to, like - I'm a New York City kid. And we would go to Shreveport. We would go to North Carolina - all these places where I personally have never gone to. And to see what that character Madea does for that audience, how people see themselves - they see their history, and they see their family members in there. It's supposed to invoke a feeling from you. And specifically in the documentary, me and Gelila wanted to give that type of transparency to both sides of the story. That way, the audience can see the motivations behind the beautiful and iconic character that is Madea and then also why people feel a certain type of way. So we definitely wanted to show both.

CHANG: Do you think some of that criticism of Madea and what she represents is fair? Can you see it? Do you get where that criticism is coming from?

BEKELE: I mean, I think it's misunderstood, you know, when someone is dismissing Madea as a ditzy character. I don't see that at all. I think I see someone who's self-taught, who - a lot of maybe people who come from academia may look down on her because she might not have the degree that they have. But I see someone who's sort of made a way for herself and protects. And in this case, from the clip you just played, you know, she's going there to protect her niece, you know, who's pushed out of her own home.

CHANG: Well, beyond Madea, I do want to talk about the way Perry writes other Black women characters in his stories. Like, you will often find Black women in his films who are in abusive relationships or who have experienced trauma at the hands of Black men. And there are some critics who feel that Perry has leaned too much into depicting the suffering of Black women. What do you say to that?

ORTIZ: I would say that that's what he grew up in. You know, as artists, we all draw from the environments that, you know, have inspired - motivate us, either helped or harmed us, right? And so when you see - and he says it himself. The first 10 films that he did was a letter to his mom to say, hey; you can leave this. It can be better. Like, we can try to get out of this situation. And so him seeing his art and seeing what he grew up in, especially talking to him about his traumas - I think that's where his characters originate from, you know?

CHANG: You see the abuse that he suffered at the hands of the father figure in the family and the abuse his mother suffered as playing out in the way he depicts Black women in his stories.

BEKELE: Well, not necessarily only depicts. But I think it touches on those subjects, you know, those experiences. He sort of has a way of including serious matters and serious conversations, but it could be a comedy, you know? I think it makes it a little bit of a softer ground to have those conversation without it feeling extremely heavy. And I think also there is a lot of focus on the trauma, I think, when we're seeing his work. Oftentimes, I hear his critics only focusing on one thing only and missing the whole picture.

CHANG: Well, how would you describe the full scope or the full body of his work if you were to sum it up?

BEKELE: I think he - you know, like many artists from - when you look at his work from the beginning until now, there's a lot of growth. There's a little - a lot of expansion. There's bigger conversations - whether it's in marriage, whether it's in workplace, whether it's, you know, from the TV shows - expanded a lot more than the conversations that we're having. And I think what we found out as filmmakers in this case is there's so much love for his work and appreciation. And there are critics, of course, who criticize his work. But the critics were a lot louder than the fans, and we missed why his fans really gravitate towards his work because he speaks to them.

CHANG: Gelila Bekele and Armani Ortiz. Their new documentary is called "Maxine's Baby: The Tyler Perry Story." Thank you both so much for being with us.

BEKELE: Thank you.

ORTIZ: Thank you. We appreciate it so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "AUGUST TWELVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Marc Rivers
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.