Saturday, October 4, 2008

Tyler Perry - Labor Union Buster? (Bad news for everyone)

I waited on this because I couldn't find any non gossip-sources (mainly Nikki Finke and Defamer), but the New Yorks Times published a blurb so I can now comment. Although, for the record, Finke's reporting on this subject seems to be rock-solid, so credit where credit is due.

Basically, it seems that self-made media titan Tyler Perry has fired four writers from the sitcom House Of Payne, because they were pressing too hard to unionize (negotiations had been going on since April). A fifth writer has quit in solidarity and the Writers Guild Of America has filed a claim of illegal and unfair labor practices with the NLRB.

The official claim is that the writers were fired due to issues with the quality of their work, although the timing of the firings is suspicious (House Of Payne has just become syndicated and there is a new Perry show premiering in January). Let me just say, as someone who somewhat enjoys Perry's movies and plays, House Of Payne is without a doubt one of the most poorly written sitcoms ever to air in my lifetime. I cannot imagine what their writing must have been like to have been unacceptable for this broad, cartoonish mishmash of unfunny comedy and failed social drama. But I digress...

It must be stated that Tyler Perry himself is a member of the DGA and every episode is covered under said union standards. Yet, despite Perry himself being covered as a member of the DGA and, as is the show and their respective actors through SAG (Perry directs every episode), the show is not unionized for the writers. For reasons unknown, House Of Payne is allegedly one of the few scripted shows not covered under the WGA.

“I feel like I was slapped in the face, like we were used” said writer and WGAW member Teri Brown-Jackson. “We were good enough to create over a hundred episodes, but now when it comes to reaping the benefits of the show being syndicated and having other spin-offs from it, he decides to let us go unless we accept a horrible offer.” [...]

The show’s head writer, Kellie Griffin, added, “A lot of people who fought for civil rights and social justice never really saw what eventually came out of their work. While I’d like to see something positive come out of this for us, if this fight helps future black writers get what they deserve, that’s a good thing.”

Whatever your issues with unions and labor negotiations may be, this seems like a classic case of 'rights for me, but not for thee'. Perry and his actors are covered under the union standards, covering fair wages, pensions, health benefits, and what not. The writers are not and some of them are claiming they are underpaid and lack health insurance as a result. Allegedly, the response from Perry and camp has been to the effect of 'there are very few opportunities for black writers in the industry, so cope or quit'. I (and I'm sure many many others) can only ask Tyler Perry to ask 'what would Jesus do?'.

This saddens me for any number of reasons. Tyler Perry is a true self-made rags to riches story. This is a guy who was homeless for a portion of his adult life and slowly went from cult playwright to mega entertainment mogul, all through the apparent power of talent, stubborn perseverance, luck, and, yes, faith. His opening this weekend of the new Tyler Perry Studios building outside Atlanta, Georgia should have been the crown jewel of his accomplishments, but now the WGA is asking guests to protest the party and not cross the picket line.

Although his work is often flawed, I admired him successfully targeting an under served audience and getting incredibly rich via his passion-plays. Furthermore, he often uses undervalued black actors (Angela Bassett, Irma P Hall, Alfre Woodard) and gives them a chance to shine (God willing, he will soon call up Tony Todd who would kick ass in a Tyler Perry melodrama). And, for all the hub-bub about his socially conservative Christian values, he seemed to stress the 'Veggie Tales' brand of Christianity, preaching compassion, forgiveness, and empathy over divisive social issues.

How this affects the current presidential race is unknown. Perry is a loud and proud Barack Obama supporter (he wants to make a movie about the Obama marriage) and now Obama is torn between showing support to a celebrity supporter with major pull in his communities, or showing support to the WGA and unions in general (Obama is a big supporter of the pro-Union Employee Free Choice Act). Perhaps Obama can be nuanced enough to keep Perry's support while publicly criticizing this specific circumstance, but that is the tightest of ropes to walk in the political world. He tried that earlier with his epic race-relations speech after the Jeremiah Wright story broke back in April, to mixed success.

I'm no expert on entertainment law and certainly not labor law, but there is certainly an easy (if naive) solution to this problem. Perry should either unionize his writing staff or resign from the guilds that he currently belongs to. Either way, this is seemingly sour behavior from a guy that a lot of us admired, regardless of whether we actually liked his work. Hopefully Perry will reverse his position and retain his standing as a role model to his communities and his peers.

Scott Mendelson


Kevin Huxford said...

Surprised you haven't received Tyler Perry fans trolling anyone who dares to criticize their idol. I've had several drive-by trolls since picking up on the union-busting issue.

Scott Mendelson said...

Well, first of all, I've also written a few complimentary posts of Perry's stuff. Although I must sadly report that Madea Goes to Jail is a giant step backwards for Perry as a filmmaker and a storyteller. It's possibly his worst film. Second of all, my personal blog doesn't have that many readers, so I'm sure I didn't get much of a fuss over it. Had I been writing for Huff Post at the time (as I am now), I probably would have gotten a livelier response.

Scott Mendelson


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