The new Amazon Prime film Maxine’s Baby documents the rise of Tyler Perry, who was born into poverty and hardship in New Orleans and overcame racism and long odds to become one of the highest-paid entertainers in the world — a billionaire, no less. While the film tries to affect the tone of a serious examination, it’s ultimately a glossy two-hour commercial for the filmmaker and entrepreneur, a chance for Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg to hype him as “among the pantheon of today’s greatest cinematic innovators.”
“Is Tyler Perry running for office?” asked RogerEbert.com. Maybe not, but it’s a fair question. The ethos that structures the film’s feel-good arc has been the beating heart of the Democratic Party’s vision of social justice since the Obama years.
By now most liberals wince at the mention of Reagan-branded “trickle-down economics.” Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama all use the term in a derogatory manner. The irony is that these liberals, in addition to a weak commitment to hiking taxes on the rich, have their own version of the theory. Their thinking goes that when members of marginalized groups make it to the top of the economic and cultural ladder, their ascent is an automatic gain for remaining members of that group.
But Tyler Perry’s fame and wealth have not tricked down to working-class and poor black people in his home city of Atlanta. Perry celebrated the 2019 opening of his production studio on a defunct Fort McPherson Army base — with soundstages named for wealthy black celebrities, including Winfrey and Goldberg — as a life-changing act of social justice for the surrounding community. “When I built my studio, I built it in a neighborhood that’s one of the poorest black neighborhoods in Atlanta, so that young black kids can see that a black man did that and they can do that, too. I was trying to help them cross,” Perry proclaimed during a BET Awards speech.
In fact, it’s been the other way around. Almost all of Atlanta’s residents have subsidized Tyler Perry’s personal wealth — which reportedly topped $1 billion this year — in some way or another.
In 2015, Perry acquired the Fort McPherson land for the significantly discounted market price of $30 million, though it had been appraised for as much as $75 million. Some local Democrats called it a “sweetheart deal” between Perry and his friend Kasim Reed, then the mayor of Atlanta. Critics said it seemed designed to help the mogul’s pocketbook rather than the poor black neighborhoods around it. “It felt like a trick. A dirty, dirty trick,” said one local resident after the deal was announced.
Forbes now estimates that Tyler Perry Studios is worth $280 million, but because of a tax deal made with local officials, he’s had to pay no property taxes on it from 2015 through 2022. That’s money would otherwise largely go to Atlanta Public Schools, whose student body is disproportionately poor and black. In 2023, the Fulton County assessor calculated the studios’ value at only $74 million — about a quarter of Forbes’s estimate — which means taxes are less than $1 million, which have yet to be paid.
Additionally Perry has taken advantage of the 30 percent state tax credit given to film productions in Georgia. The share of tax money used to subsidize Hollywood productions cost Georgia voters an average of $330 per household last year. Perry earned plenty of glowing national headlines earlier this year for his philanthropy in donating $750,000 to help low-income seniors in Atlanta as property taxes increased. Still, there was no mention of the layers upon layers of tax breaks he got in the first place.
Meanwhile, Atlanta now has the worst income inequality in the nation, with the median household income for a black family at $28,000, compared to $83,000 for white families. Some of the neighborhoods and southwestern suburbs surrounding Tyler Perry’s studios remain among the most poverty stricken. Not that you’ll hear anything about that in Maxine’s Baby.
But perhaps, goes the thinking, these struggling residents will one day see the Amazon Prime film or peer through the gates and stare up at the 35,000-square-foot $100-million megamansion Perry is building nearby and be inspired to lift themselves out of poverty. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Maxine’s Baby is liberal twist on a familiar trope: One man’s journey to the heights of fame and fortune will trickle down and become everyone else’s success.