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The Unlikely Success of Tyler Perry

By Jesse Carey Producer - Prayer, faith, family values and testimonies of God’s redeeming power may sound more like the things of Sunday morning services than Saturday night premiers, but for Tyler Perry, these are the stories worth telling. 

This weekend, the latest film from the writer, director and actor, the romantic comedy Meet the Browns, hits theaters. And if the name sounds familiar, it’s because the filmmaker has been a busy man lately. Perry’s sitcom on TBS remains one of the network’s highest-rated shows, and Meet the Browns is Perry’s second major movie release in just the last five months.

Even though Perry’s steady schedule of releases has become a staple of mainstream entertainment, there’s still something surprising every time a new project is released—his Hollywood comedies are full of outspoken references to faith in God and the importance of family.

But despite his knack for telling funny, compelling stories that combine elements of faith and family, the real-life story of Tyler Perry plays out with almost as much drama as one of his films. To say that the filmmaker—who has transcended to the level of media mogul topping box-office charts, bestsellers lists and primetime TV ratings—started from humble beginnings, would be an understatement.

Perry’s childhood in New Orleans was marked by a pattern of abuse by his father, and the bitterness from the broken relationship became a source of unforgiveness as Perry grew older, eventually moving to Atlanta. It was only after channeling his struggles through writing, that he found a deeper calling.

After praying for God to help him to forgive his father, whom he later reconciled with, Perry turned his turbulent story of forgiveness and redemption into the stage play I Know I’ve Been Changed. But after several unsuccessful shows, the 28-year-old playwright was broke and even lived on the streets on Atlanta when he couldn’t make ends meet. But even in the difficult times, Perry never doubted his calling.

Eventually, I Know I’ve Been Changed became a sleeper hit that offered audiences a refreshing glimpse into the hard, and often times funny things, that God can deliver you from. The play launched Perry into the status of a hot up-and-coming writer.

The success led him to adapt Bishop. T.D. Jakes’ bestselling book Woman Thou Art Loosed into a stage production—a project that exploded into a blockbuster hit. The buzz garnered from the play gave way to several feature films, which Perry writes, directs and acts in, often portraying a variety characters, including the good-natured (but often over-the-top) grandmother Medea.

And though Perry is now one of Hollywood’s most successful young filmmakers, the 38-year-old star hasn’t lost touch with what first made him connect with audiences in urban Atlanta—his faith in Christ. All of his films maintain more than just a unique blend of relational drama and gut-busting comedy; they show how faith in God and the power of family can deliver people out of even the most trying times, and it’s this quality (one that seems to be missing from so many high-profile movies) that makes Perry’s rags-to-riches all the more unlikely. Even while carrying PG-13 ratings for heavy themes and realistic portrayals of tough times, his films never abandon overtly Christian messages.

Angela Bassett and Tamela J. Mann in Tyler Perry's 'Meet the Browns'As Perry’s box-office stature grows, so do the profile of his movies; after attracting stars including Janet Jackson, Jill Scott and Blair Underwood, former NBA star-turned-actor Rick Fox portrays a potential love interest alongside Angela Bassett in Meet the Browns. Even Oscar winners Kathy Bates and Jennifer Hudson will star in Perry’s next film (which is currently in production) A Family That Preys.

Meet the Browns tells the story of a single mother (played by Bassett) struggling to pay the bills, who meets her extended family for the first time after learning of the death of her estranged father. It’s while in the small Georgia town for the funeral when the mother and her teenaged son find how the gift of family, love and faith can help unite the ones we’re closest to.

There is still a single element that seems to unite Hollywood stars and loyal audiences across the country, something that has made the work of Tyler Perry an unlikely fixture in pop culture. More than just a blend of hilarious characters and dramatic situations, Perry’s unashamed embrace of the redeeming power of God and family has brought him from brokenness and poverty, and, as his movies show, he’s hasn’t forgotten what he learned along way.

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