Whether you love him, hate him, or are indifferent about Tyler Perry, the man who birthed a thousand Madea movies (ok, 12) is indeed one of Black America’s most talked about. He is, however, less heard and most certainly not studied with compassion. That changes with Maxine's Baby: The Tyler Perry Story, a documentary on Perry, his life, and his life’s work, arriving on Prime Video on Nov. 17.
Courtesy of filmmakers Gelila Bekele and Armani Ortiz––who, it should be noted, are Perry’s former partner/co-parent and protege, respectively––Maxine’s Baby examines Perry from an empathetic, albeit fair and at times surprisingly critical vantage point to make a portrait of a man everybody talks about but doesn’t know.
“We had the privilege of having a front row seat watching this man,” Bekele told BET.com in a recent interview. “He’s been dismissed as this one thing but no one has really seen who he is.”
Aside from that memorable interview on Oprah in 2010 when Perry opened up about the abuse he endured as a kid, that aspect of his life hasn’t been explored much in pop culture portrayals. But Maxine’s Baby –– the nickname he gave himself in tribute to his late mother –– pries that part of Perry’s life open to reveal more of him and, as a result, establish just how remarkable it is he survived––let alone became the juggernaut who now owns the largest film production studio in America. Using footage they collected over more than ten years, Bekele and Ortiz plunge into the depths of his horrific treatment at the hands of his father, who even makes a chilling, unrepentant cameo.
Maxine’s Baby then chronicles Perry’s steadfast, almost Biblical-like faith in his purpose in his journey as his early productions failed and, as most know, he spent time living in his car. Detailing Perry’s rise in the late 90s and early 2000s from chitlin circuit playwright to serious Hollywood contender, Bekele, and Ortiz include the voices of several white industry executives to explain how underestimated Perry was and, more impressively, how Perry disrupted standard business models to shake the table in ways never before seen. Even Oprah admits at one point that she studied how he did business, insisting on ownership at every level and refusing to compromise for white dollars.
But what’s most eyebrow-raising about Maxine’s Baby is the time spent addressing Perry’s enduring criticisms. Bekele and Ortiz include a handful of scholars, academics, and other influential Black creators like Spike Lee to break down the elements of Perry’s stories many have found problematic, including the infantilizing of Black women. They don’t hold back; it’s almost shocking how specific and pointed said critiques are in an otherwise complimentary film.
While the Maxine’s Baby filmmakers have apparent personal allegiances to their subject that make complete objectivity nearly impossible, they felt they couldn’t faithfully tell Perry’s story without including them. “He knows that he has critics,” Ortiz said, adding that Perry had no involvement in the making. “It wasn't like that was a surprise. But we knew as filmmakers that we wanted to give a full field of transparency to everyone, to tell the truth.”
Truth, of course, is always relative. But in watching Maxine’s Baby, seeing Perry hold back tears at his studio’s groundbreaking as Sidney Poitier cried recalling being the only Black man on a set, or when Perry recounts how his dying mother called to thank him for never giving up because if he had, she wouldn’t be able to afford her medicine, even Perry’s most unrepentant haters may come away seeing him with a bit more nuance. “We wanted to get to know who he is,” Bekele said, “what he does, and provide a deeper understanding of why his work resonates and touches so many people.”
Maxine's Baby: The Tyler Perry Story is set to premiere on Prime Video on Nov. 17.