Tyler Perry, despite being one of Atlanta’s most recognizable figures as a media mogul and entrepreneur, can be intensely private about his personal life. His son is not seen in public. His dating life is rarely in the news.
But Perry let his now ex-girlfriend and filmmaker Gelila Bekele, who also happens to the mother of his son Aman, follow him around for several years and chronicle his life. She continued the project even after they broke up in 2020. The results can be seen in Amazon Prime’s new documentary “Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story” out Nov. 17.
Bekele decided not to include herself in the documentary, but Aman pops into several scenes because Bekele wanted to show Perry as a family man as well as a businessman. Aman’s face is never shown because they agreed that Aman should grow up without the spotlight on him.
“I wanted to take myself out of it, and just follow my curiosity and create a space for polarity where his critics and his fans can sort of share their truth,” Bekele told the “Today” show recently. “Privacy is something I hold dearly.”
Bekele said originally, the footage wasn’t meant to be a documentary. “I had the privilege of having a front-row seat watching this man become busier than ever,” she said. She began filming him more for archival purposes as he turned a former U.S. Army base into a huge TV and film studio. But then she decided it might be worth chronicling his story for eventual public consumption.
“With time, we were able to really show him that all we wanted was to be a steward to his story,” said Armani Ortiz, the director. “We were able to get that confidence and capture those quiet moments where he could be vulnerable.”
Credit: Ryon Horne
Credit: Ryon Horne
On the night he officially opened Tyler Perry Studios in October 2019, with A-list stars like Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry in attendance, Ortiz was shooting Perry, about to hit the red carpet in a sharp white suit, looking both nervous and contemplative. Off camera, Ortiz asked Perry how he was feeling. Perry looked super annoyed.
“This was such a big moment,” Ortiz said. “I felt if I didn’t get a question in or understand what was going on in his head, Bekele would murder me with the camera in my hand.” Ultimately, Perry did offer him a few words: “He allowed himself to reflect a little bit, which was great.”
Why did the documentary take so long? Bekele said she wanted to film a broad array of moments, of Perry playing with his son, directing a film or seamlessly juggling 20 things at once. “We didn’t want to just capture Perry the mogul. We also wanted to understand this human. Who are you at the core?”
To accomplish that goal, “Maxine’s Baby” focuses heavily on Perry’s difficult childhood in New Orleans and how that shaped the creativity and the drive that would make him a billionaire with dozens of successful films and TV shows and his own showstopping studio complex. And he owns all of it himself, working outside the Hollywood system to forge his own path and fan base.
His father Emmitt Perry Sr., who physically and emotionally abused Perry as a child, looms large. Emmitt is still alive but declined to speak to Bekele and Ortiz for the documentary and is only seen cursing out Perry’s cousin Kevin “Lucky” Johnson when Johnson showed up at his uncle’s home.
“It was very tough actually seeing him at that age and still have that attitude,” Ortiz said. “You can only imagine what he was like when he was younger and what TP went through. ... It was one of those rare moments where no answer is the right answer.”
Johnson was ultimately their most valuable contributor in terms of providing an inside look at Perry’s family situation.
“We went to New Orleans multiple times to have conversations with Lucky,” said Ortiz. “To me, he was the key piece.”
Atlanta’s Killer Mike, Whoopi Goldberg and Perry’s inspiration and mentor Oprah Winfrey all get to wax poetic on Perry and his impact on the world.
“He has an ability to relate to people because he comes from a space of living it, not just taking it,” said Winfrey in the doc. “That’s why he can speak to anybody else who has been abused or burdened or involved in any struggle. ... He’s one of those people who can turn that pain into real power.”
Perry also explains in the doc his ability to pump out 20 scripts in two weeks, a level of productivity that boggles many observers. “For some who think this is weird and strange, it’s me just accessing a place I created as a kid to cope,” he said. “That now is the thing that is sustaining what I’m doing in this business.”
This is not a pure canonization of Perry. Critics are given their due, maligning Madea as a caricature and the fact he was a man dressing up as a woman. And much of his work wasn’t exactly geared for traditional critics or Oscar voters but a particular faith-based Black female core audience that he continues to court even as he expands his portfolio of content.
The producers also reveals why he moved to Atlanta from New Orleans three decades ago: “I see Black people doing well,” he said. “This is the promised land. There is a heart that beats for Black people to thrive. That to me was a revelation that I deserve it too because I’m just as good as anybody else.”
The film ends with the filmmakers trying to get Perry to encapsulate himself in a few words. He thought of his mother Maxine, who died in 2009 but remains near and dear to Perry’s heart.
His succinct answer, “Maxine’s baby,” became the title of the movie.
As soon as Ortiz caught that on film, he sent the clip to Bekele. “TP gave you what?” she said.
Ortiz said that Perry “is always so reserved. We sat for two hours before he said that.”
“Magic,” Bekele said. “That’s what you strive for as a filmmaker.”
She said Maxine is a key to Perry’s success.
“They both endured a lot,” Bekele said. “She was his inspiration from the beginning. He said in a speech that his first 10 films were about her, so she could see herself and leave an abusive relationship and be okay. He shows that success and acquiring wealth isn’t just to be rich. There’s always a reason. His reason was to protect his mother and give her the world. This film is in many ways a meditation on healing and love.”
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.