October 5, 2019 Atlanta - Major celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, T.D. Jakes, Dallas Austin, Kelly Rowland, and Tyler Perry himsefl, were in town for the opening of Tyler Perry Studios Saturday, October 5, 2019 in Atlanta. Perry acquired the property of Fort McPherson to build a movie studio on 330 acres of land. (Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com)
Photo: Ryon Horne
Photo: Ryon Horne

Opinion: Tyler Perry Studios is more than a location for a debate. It's an example.

The Democratic National Committee has decided to locate the fifth presidential debate at Tyler Perry’s studio complex. There’s more to this than a bid for the “Madea” vote — though that’s worth chasing, too.

Not everyone gets it.

After word of the decision leaked out (as of this writing, no formal announcement has been made), the person in charge of the Twitter account of the Cobb County GOP tapped out the accusation that “the DNC has chosen a venue that showcases elite Hollywood values.”

In a word, no.

Tyler Perry isn’t Hollywood. He has become the foremost African-American alternative to Hollywood. It is the point of his operation, as he explained at the BET Awards ceremony in June – to an audience frustrated by Hollywood’s on-again, off-again attempt to diversify.

“While everybody else is fighting for a seat at the table, talking about ‘#OscarsSoWhite, #OscarsSoWhite,’ I said, ‘Y’all go ahead and do that. While you’re fighting for a seat at the table, I’ll be down in Atlanta building my own,’” Perry told the crowd. “Because what I know for sure is that if I could just build this table, God will prepare it for me in the presence of my enemies.”

Moreover, bringing nine presidential candidates – maybe more — to south Atlanta is more than an acknowledgement that black voters hold the key to Democratic fortunes in Georgia, next year and beyond.

The debate will bestow national recognition on an African-American media/entertainment complex that could become the greatest legacy of Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision to extend and expand substantial tax credits to lure film and TV productions away from the West Coast.

Perry is now the only African-American who is the sole owner of a major studio. As many a movie magazine has pointed out, his 12 sound stages make his operation larger than Disney, Paramount, and Warner Brothers.

Perry has bankrolled himself with the creation of a series of successful stage plays, several TV sit-com families and his 14-year portrayal of a pistol-wielding, big-bosomed black matriarch – which he retired early this year. The first 10 “Madea” movies alone generated more than $500 million.

But it would also be wrong to say Perry has done this wholly on his own.

Fort MacPherson, a hub of military activity during the Vietnam War and beyond, closed in 2011, in the midst of the Great Recession. An entire sector of Atlanta – never the most prosperous side of town — suddenly needed rescuing.

A local governmental authority known as Fort Mac LRA took control of the 488-acre property and sold 330 acres to Perry in 2015 for $30 million.

Kasim Reed, then mayor of Atlanta, had much to do with the transaction. He’s the one who first showed Perry the Fort Mac property. (People forget that Reed got his start as an entertainment lawyer.)

His successor, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, this summer became an early advocate for locating the Nov. 20 Democratic debate in Atlanta, specifically on Tyler Perry’s turf. At the same time, Bottoms was advocating for the remainder of the Fort Mac property to be purchased by Perry. The deal didn’t gel. Or hasn’t yet.

For his part, Perry has found that creating the core of an industry still dependent on the tax-credit largesse of a GOP-controlled state Legislature imposes some restraints.

Throughout the debate over House Bill 481, the “heartbeat” measure that would ban nearly all abortions after about six weeks, Perry held his tongue – even after Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill into law.

Finally, in a Sept. 25 interview with the Associated Press in Los Angeles, Perry made two points. First, he said he wouldn’t participate in any boycott of Georgia over the new law, as other actors and directors on the West Coast have called for.

“Atlanta has been the dream. It has been the promised land,” he said. “So when I got here, this whole state and city has been amazing to me and I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” Perry said. ”Also, I put $250 million in the ground here and in the studio. So when you have a quarter of a billion dollars sat down in the ground, you can’t just up and leave.”

When pushed, Perry also said he opposed Georgia’s new abortion law — a likely requirement for snagging that Democratic debate. “I don’t believe any man should be able to tell a woman what she can do with her body or reproductive organs,” he said.

That brings us back to the aforementioned Republican accusation, that Perry is Hollywood and vice versa.

Perry told my AJC colleague Rodney Ho that many in the California film industry are unhappy that so much production has left that state. The abortion debate is a form of counter-pressure, he told Ho. “There is a financial interest in California having an issue with Georgia,” he said.

I did not go to the grand opening of Tyler Perry Studios on Oct. 6. My invitation was lost in the mail.

But if you study the photos and video clips from the event, which featured famous faces from politics, movies, the media and even religion, you can tell this was a celebration of something new, different — and apart from the West Coast.

State Sen. Leroy Johnson died this week at age 91. In 1962, he became the first African-American elected to the Legislature since Reconstruction. In 1970, he rescued the boxing career of Muhammad Ali, a conscientious objector facing down the Vietnam War. Other cities boycotted the boxer. Johnson rallied an African-American community on the verge of coming to power in Atlanta.

The match here pitted Ali against Jerry Quarry.

“It was the greatest collection of black money and black power ever assembled until that time. Right in the heart of the old Confederacy, it was ‘Gone With the Wind’ turned upside-down,” according to the late boxing historian Burt Sugar.

Tyler Perry’s grand opening had that kind of look.

If Democrats are smart, they will use Tyler Perry Studios as more than a location for a debate. They’ll use it as an example.

In the past, Perry’s “Madea” character – with her mixture of outrageous behavior and morality — has brought him a deal of criticism. “Buffoonery” was one of the kinder words used. “Minstrelism” was another. In fact, “Madea” movies were a variety that Hollywood refused to make – and so Perry did. Very successfully.

Perry has argued, convincingly, that the disapproval showered upon him was a matter of class, not race. “I understood very early on that this mostly blue-collar African-American audience was feeling inspired,” Perry wrote in The New York Times – in a kind of obituary for Madea.

If there’s a current white parallel to Madea, it might be Larry the Cable Guy – of “git er done” fame.

Democrats are in the process of picking up more support among the college-educated and losing the support of those who stopped at high school.

Tyler Perry and his studios are a reminder that lectures aren’t always the best way to persuade an audience. Some movie-goers – and voters — need to be addressed emotionally, not intellectually. And that kind of story-telling often requires the occasional belly laugh.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.
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