When news first broke that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were living in the Los Angeles mansion owned by Tyler Perry, it was a little surprising. Over time, it became clear that Perry, the entertainment mogul known for films and TV shows that center the stories of Black people, had a “front-row seat” to Meghan and Harry’s new American life, as he put it in an August Instagram post, but it wasn’t until the Netflix docuseries Harry & Meghan that the three friends opened up about how they met. Perry turned out to be so important to the couple that he is now the godfather of their one-year-old daughter, Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor.
By the end of Harry & Meghan, Perry’s role in the family’s lives and in the series made perfect sense. He explained that he initially reached out to Meghan after noticing that her father, Thomas Markle, was seemingly cooperating with the press. A few years later, they developed a friendship when he validated her fears about safety and helped her find a place where the family could spend the early months after their royal exit became official. For those familiar with Perry’s work, there is clearly a deeper meaning to their connection. Themes like family betrayal, abuse, and rescue are all over the work of the gospel playwright turned independent filmmaker, especially early films like Diary of a Mad Black Woman or Madea’s Family Reunion.
For Tamika Carey, an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia, Perry’s presence in the royal story was more than just a pleasant surprise. Her academic work focuses on Black women’s literature alongside more mainstream self-help texts, like Oprah, Perry, and Iyanla Vanzant. In her 2016 book Rhetorical Healing: The Reeducation of Contemporary Black Womanhood, she did a close reading of Perry’s work to understand how his portrayal of abuse and overcoming or responding to it reflect broader themes in American life. In her writing about Perry, Carey has been critical of the ways that his work occasionally falls into stereotypes about Black women and families, while also understanding its resonance.
This week, Vanity Fair spoke to Carey to get an overview on the connections between Perry’s work and his role in Meghan and Harry’s life, and how understanding the stories in Harry & Meghan can help us become more empathetic.
“I’m thinking about the concept of sanctuary and what that means, for hypervisible figures, and how the attention that we’re seeing to this fleeing, this basic escape, should be pushing us towards a better understanding of the complicated lives that these individuals lead,” she says. “What kind of additional sensitivities and literacies could we develop in our relationship as spectators of the royals?”
Vanity Fair: The documentary had an explicit focus on the racial politics of the British media, but the inclusion of Tyler Perry and Meghan’s mom, Doria Ragland, naturally meant that I was thinking about race in America while I watched. What do you think about Meghan Markle as a symbol for Americans? What does she mean to us?
Tamika Carey: I think, for a symbol of feminism, she shows a particular type of grace in the midst of attack. She has used her ability to tell a singular and consistent story about that abuse really well. She models speaking out in an unapologetic way about her own experiences, and those are the things that I think will be part of her legacy and part of the way we see her for a long time. One of the other themes that I was seeing was the influence of the mother’s experience. Meghan’s motherland, the fact that they end up in California again as a married couple. The way that Tyler Perry was using both his own mother’s experience as well as Princess Diana as ways to understand what Megan was experiencing.
There was the early episode where she mentions that she didn’t have to think about race a lot [before her relationship with Harry]. Unfortunately, I know of a lot of cynical black women that were like, “How did you not have to think about race?” The racial politics are a little less clear for me, simply because I can’t ignore that. I’m not quite sure how to put those two together.
Oh, totally. I think her initial discomfort with race speaks to why Perry’s role in the story is so fascinating, because he is such a prolific interpreter of Black America. In the sixth episode of the show, his relationship with Meghan sounds almost like a therapist. As someone who is very familiar with Perry and his work, what did you make of that?
Obviously, we could read the documentary as a way to take back some control of the narrative, which in therapeutic culture, that’s a kind of interesting move in and of itself. Like, ‘We’ll get in front of this. We’ll tell the story from our vantage point.’ That particular episode brings it to an end that’s more positive than where I thought we were going. It’s certainly not saccharine, but I didn’t expect it to come to this conclusion the way that it did.