On consecutive nights, Los Angeles’ AFI Fest presented the world premieres of very different documentaries about renowned writer-director-stars.
The Rob Reiner-helmed Albert Brooks: Defending My Life, premiering on HBO in November, is fundamentally a meeting of peers. The Stand by Me filmmaker and his subject, the auteur behind Lost in America, were high school classmates and have been lifelong chums. Their interaction is wholly amiable and the resulting film is loose, warm and without confrontation.
More from The Hollywood Reporter
Gelila Bekele and Armani Ortiz’s Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story, hitting Amazon in November, isn’t a confrontational documentary either. In one of the film’s first scenes, the Diary of a Mad Black Woman mastermind and industry mogul nonpareil is about to take the stage at the 2019 grand opening of Atlanta’s Tyler Perry Studios when Ortiz asks him a question, a query he concludes by calling Perry “sir.” It’s a respectful form of address, not obsequious at all, but it makes one thing immediately clear: This interaction, like everything chronologically before and after, is not one of peers. Maxine’s Baby has a title that suggests vulnerability, but this documentary is defined by a celebration of control.
It doesn’t matter if Tyler Perry had literal control over Maxine’s Baby or no filmmaking control at all — Perry is an active participant but not an executive producer here — because the documentary’s primary journey is tracing Perry’s life from a youth characterized by abuse and powerlessness. He has found a maturity in which he has full control over a media empire and, surely, full control over a personal and professional image that has faced doubt and adversity and floats above anything so parochial as “criticism,” especially from the likes of me.
Bekele and Ortiz appear to have had impressive access to Perry over a period of 10 years, yet nobody is going to come away from Maxine’s Baby thinking that there’s anything here that runs counter to exactly the way Perry wants to present himself to the world. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine anybody coming away from the film unimpressed and uninspired. What it lacks in spontaneity, Maxine’s Baby makes up for in an aggressively persuasive message.
Despite the title and despite the directors’ access, Perry has done previous interviews that were more clearly aimed at projecting vulnerability and fragility. Power recognizes power, and you see in the documentary how often Bekele and Ortiz have to lean on extended anecdotes that Perry told other, higher-profile interviewers and isn’t sharing here. The film’s most graphic memories of his difficult childhood are from an aunt, his cousin Lucky, and interviews Perry did with 60 Minutes, Oprah Winfrey or Piers Morgan, sampled extensively here. In his own conversations with the filmmakers, Perry is candid, but not confessional.
At almost every turn, you can see how Perry has decided to present himself and how the directors align with that vision, whether it’s the decision to bleep any instance of Perry swearing (which he does only when quoting other people) or how it treats (or doesn’t treat) his son and his son’s mother. One of the recurring images in the documentary is the back of Perry’s head, as if he’s constantly moving forward or constantly looking off at the next thing and the filmmakers are just doing the best they can to follow behind him.
The documentary has a clear throughline when it comes to grounding Perry’s inspirations in the escape from childhood abuse and in his faith, and, at its very best, it offers his blueprint for success. It’s a blueprint that relies on centuries of Black storytelling and art stemming from the church, but also from an obsessive work ethic that is astounding. I can feel whatever I feel about the quality of Perry’s films and television shows, but the thing that he has built is remarkable, and any dark side to the way the empire has been created — say, for example, past difficulties with unions — definitely isn’t a part of this documentary’s version of his life.
The art itself borders on irrelevant. Only a few of the films on Perry’s résumé are given individual attention, and there’s no sense at all that he has matured or even changed at all as an artist — an oversight given that one can easily look back at his first few features and see that he’s absolutely grown and his thematic aspirations have changed as well. Too often, the documentary conflates artistic success with commercial success and conflates criticism with obliviousness, and while it’s easy to see how it would motivate Perry to think that way, I personally think his astonishing success is much less interesting if you take it in such binary terms. Instead, “doubters” is probably the second item on Perry’s list of inspirations, behind only “faith.”
Some of those doubters are present here — academics, select Black artists — but their criticisms are presented almost in passing, with nowhere near the enthusiasm expressed by supporters like Killer Mike or Perry’s longtime publicist or half the executives at Lionsgate. The pointed barbs levied by The Boondocks or Atlanta — and some of the exceptional behind-the-scenes footage of Perry at work in Maxine’s Baby is indistinguishable from Donald Glover’s “Kirkwood Chocolate” — go unacknowledged.
Nobody is more pointed and direct in their criticisms of Perry’s filmmaking than Spike Lee in a mid-’00s interview, but the only refutation Maxine’s Baby requires is Lee’s enthusiastic presence in footage from that Tyler Perry Studios gala opening. Whether Lee was right or wrong, the film implies, Perry won.
In general, Perry won. Maxine’s Baby is a record of that victory even if, as a blueprint, it’s one that can be learned from, if not reproduced. Perry makes it very clear that nobody can outwork him and, honestly, I believe him.
Fans will find the documentary revelatory and, because his respect for and understanding of his fans is so central to his success, emotionally gratifying as well. But even if you’re not necessarily a fan and Perry’s control feels suffocating at times, that doesn’t stop Maxine’s Baby from being a frequently fascinating look at a unique figure.
Best of The Hollywood Reporter