‘Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story’: A Long-Form Recap of Perry’s Success Story That Never Dispels the Myth
Armani Ortiz and Gelila Bekele’s “Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story” is touted as a love letter to Willie Maxine Perry. Tyler Perry’s mother is his greatest influence. He lives her values, proclaims her strengths, and she continues to guide the comic filmmaking force. But the audience doesn’t get much more of her history in the documentary feature. The rest of the hour and 55-minute runtime is a life-coaching session with Perry’s team and admirers.
Tyler Perry grew up in a rough area of New Orleans. He rose through the tough terrain like the grapes which make the best tasting wine, we hear. He becomes a financial institution by aiming directly to the oft-mentioned underserved Black audience, largely ignored by the traditional Hollywood system, and is a true show business innovator. Tyler translated his background into a language the white executive class could understand: His films made mad money. He didn’t get the best reviews and was roundly criticized socially, but his lowest common denominator was an accumulation of small denominations. Tyler didn’t need a studio, as his first independent film did quite nicely, earning ten times the $8 million budget. The clout attracted Lionsgate, but also bought him control of his own material. This is forward thinking generational security which goes beyond money, and created a workable model which he builds into an incredibly successful studio. Perry knows what his fans want.
Sadly, the documentary also knows what Perry’s fans want, and does not go beyond the existing accepted narrative. Tyler himself comes across as an almost reluctant subject. It’s not that he’s embarrassed by all the nice things being said about him, but he seems to be forever on his way to get something done. Directors Armani Ortiz, a long-time collaborator who directs Perry’s TV shows, and Gelila Bekele, Perry’s ex-girlfriend, and mother of his son Aman, don’t separate the man from the myth. “Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story” sidesteps personal details, like Perry’s 2020 split with Bekele. Even though the pair of documentarians enjoyed unprecedented time with the subject, they did not have all-access passes.
Early in the film, one of the directors asks about childhood experiences. “I’m not talking about that,” Perry answers, before going on to shut down notions of imaging all this success. “I’m not going there.” This sets the tone. There will be no new revelations. Maxine, who died in 2009, was deeply religious. Ministers could be found in her family line going all the way back to the days of slavery. “Maxine’s Baby” preaches to the choir, and the directors fill the spaces with a rousing and reverent gospel soundtrack, along with some prime Otis Redding, always a welcome addition. “Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story” is a cross-genre work. It merges bio-documentary filmmaking with religious educational videos, and corporate training films.
One very high point is Tyler’s cousin Lucky Johnson as the narrator. He still loves even the worst of New Orleans, and is the closest window into the abuse Tyler suffered at the hands of his father, Emmitt Perry Sr. Lucky even slips into calling Tyler “Junior” before catching himself. We can trust him more than just as an eye witness, but as an emotional one. Lucky lets his guard down, and is more vulnerable than Perry ever allows the film crew to catch. The biggest cracks in the emotional armor are edited in from interviews Tyler did on many of the archived late-night talk shows, as well as “60 Minutes,” and in interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Piers Morgan.
Much of the painful memories come early, after an almost biblical opening montage. After a very quick tour of the dangerous neighborhood, we see the cubby where young Tyler hid from his father after repeated and vicious beatings. Later, the film shows Bekele and Ortiz attempt to interview Emmitt Perry Sr. in an ultimately frustrating, but telling sequence. Earlier, Lucky remembers a beaten-bloody, 7-year-old Tyler, desperately coming over and asking his mom, Tyler’s Aunt Jerry, for help. She went back to the house with a gun intending more than a mere confrontation. While the audience can also see the budding matriarch Madea character in retrospect, the emotional imagery is traumatic. However, later references to sexual abuse Tyler suffered as a child is glossed over with a single sentence. It doesn’t fit the Perry scriptures.
Tyler’s move from his failed ministerial audition at New Orleans’ biggest neighborhood pulpit to the theater is a fun journey. The section from Tyler’s first stage production, “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” though his tours of the South and Midwest on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” moves as quickly and easily as the 300 shows he performed between 1998 and 2004. Oprah, Killer Mike, Gayle King, Whoopi Goldberg, and every executive at Lionsgate speak to the artistic and inspirational Perry, the underdog who beat big business on his own terms. This culminates in the ultimate triumph, opening night of Tyler Perry Studios, the first time a Black man owned a major film studio. Only a few of Perry’s films get special attention. There is no examination of his artistic growth. There is no special consideration given “A Jazzman’s Blues,” or “For Colored Girls.”
While not exactly a union man, a detail dropped from the background, the documentary shows Perry as a man who loves his job. “Nobody can outwork me,” Perry says. “James Brown would’ve bowed down.” The documentary seems to revel in Tyler’s productive quantity over his productions’ quality, while the critics get in very short jabs. An archival clip shows Spike Lee balking at Tyler’s films’ “buffoonery,” leaving the most incisive critiques for poet-playwright-artist Carl Hancock Rux and Dr. Samantha N. Sheppard. Her take on “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” is so insightful, it hurts Perry to hear.
“Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story” is made for Perry’s fans. It probably won’t bring in new devotees but they will be able to appreciate the work the comic artist puts into his products. Like the recent documentary “Sly,” about Sylvester Stallone, this documentary feels like a vanity project, an overlong commercial for celebrity mythology, but it works as a celebration of the artist, and an arm’s length study of the man.
“Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story” begins streaming Nov. 17 on Amazon Prime Video.