I didn’t know much about Tyler Perry before Sunday’s Academy Award event. I sure know a lot more now.
Last Sunday, Perry was the recipient of the Gene Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The honor is only periodically given to an “individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.” And Perry more than qualified. His foundation has partnered with an incredible number of other foundations and organizations to, in the website’s words, to “transform tragedy into triumph by seeding individual potential, supporting communities, and harvesting sustainable change.”
Drawing from his past and sharing the success he has enjoyed, Perry stood on the stage to offer words that were part thanks, part autobiography and a moving call-to-action to the millions who watched.
Speaking from his heart, it was a homily of help and hope, a message we all need to hear.
“You know, when I set out to help someone it is my intention to do just that. I’m not trying to do anything other than meet somebody at their humanity. Like, case in point this one time I remember maybe it was 17 years ago, and I rented this building, and we were using it for production and I was walking to my car one day and I see this woman coming up out of the corner of my eye and I say she’s homeless let me give her some money. Judgment. I wish I had time to talk about judgment.
“Anyway, I reach in my pocket and I’m about to give her the money and she says: ‘Excuse me sir do you have any shoes?’
“It stopped me cold because I remember being homeless and having one pair of shoes and they were bent over at the heel. So, I took her into the studio. She was hesitant to go in, but we went in. We go to wardrobe and there were all these boxes and everything around the walls and fabrics and racks of clothes, so we ended up having to stand in the middle of the floor.
“As we’re standing there [in] wardrobe and we find her these shoes and I help her put them on and I’m waiting for her to look up and all this time she’s looking down. She finally looks up and she’s got tears in her eyes. She says: ‘Thank you Jesus. My feet are off the ground.’
“In that moment I recall her saying to me ‘I thought you would hate me for asking’ but how could I hate you when I used to be you? How could I hate you when I had a mother who grew up in the Jim Crow South in Louisiana—rural Louisiana—right across the border from Mississippi, who at nine or 10 years old was grieving the death of that. As she got a little bit older, she was grieving the deaths of the civil rights boys and the little girls who were in the bombing in Alabama. She grieved all these years.
“And I remember being a little boy and coming home and she was at home and I was like ‘what are you doing home you’re supposed to be at work?’ and she was in tears that day and she said there was a bomb threat. She couldn’t believe someone wanted to blow up this place where she worked, where she took care of all these toddlers. It was the Jewish community center.
“My mother taught me to refuse hate. She taught me to refuse blanket judgment. And in this time and with all the internet and social media and algorithms and everything that wants us to think a certain way—the 24-hour news cycle—it is my hope that all of us will teach our kids—and not only to remember—just refuse hate. Don’t hate anybody.
“I refuse to hate someone because they’re Mexican or because they are Black or White, or LGBTQ. I refuse to hate someone because they’re a police officer. I refuse to hate someone because they are Asian. I would hope that we would refuse hate.
“I want to take this Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and dedicate it to anyone who wants to stand in the middle, no matter what’s around the walls, stand in the middle because that’s where healing happens. That’s where conversation happens. That’s where change happens. It happens in the middle.
“So, anyone who wants to meet me in the middle, to refuse hate, to refuse blanket judgment and to help lift someone’s feet off the ground, this one is for you, too. God bless you and thank you Academy, I appreciate it.”
The Perry Foundation’s mission statement speaks to the commitment and character of its founder.
“We believe true human potential happens when opportunity and hope meet.”