A movie with the title “Maxine’s Baby” brings with it certain expectations; namely, that it will help you learn something, anything of substance regarding a person named Maxine. The new documentary from directors Gelila Bekele and Armani Ortiz does not fulfill that promise. Maxine in the film is Willie Maxine Perry, and the baby is her son, Tyler Perry. Over the course of its too-long one-hour and 55-minute runtime, “Maxine’s Baby” shares a grand total of maybe three facts about Perry’s mother: 1) she was married to an abusive man, 2) she was religious, and 3) she died in 2009. Any real meat about who she was as a person is cast aside in favor of picture montages and in-the-moment interviews where Perry discusses his love for his Maxine, and how she shaped him into the artist he is today. These sections universally go down like a wafer cookie: sweet but lacking real substance to chew on.
“Lacking real substance” pretty much sums up “Maxine’s Baby” in general. Perry is a complicated, fascinating figure in the film industry, a man who rose from genuine hardship to incredible wealth and success by courting a specific Black audience underserved by the traditional Hollywood system, facing substantial criticism along the way. But the documentary is hesitant to dip even half a pinkie toe into genuinely harsh subject matter, because to do so would contradict its clear mission to coronate Perry as an industry great. All that nuance gets elided for a fluffy, forgettable hagiography that purports to tell Perry’s story, but keeps him constantly out of reach.
The movie establishes its general tone from the jump with a ludicrously over-the-top montage filled with soundbites discussing Perry’s rise to industry prominence, accompanied by an overbearing, bombastic score. A series of slickly filmed hero shots of Perry — in film studios, on planes, and backstage of a play dressed as his iconic Madea character — follow, suitably conveying the message the overall film has: Perry is the biggest, most important, most impressive Hollywood giant alive.
And yet, in spite of all this, the movie struggles to really connect the audience to the man it’s mythologizing. Part of the problem is who Perry is as a doc subject. He has a few moments of charm and vulnerability when talking about his mother, but is otherwise businesslike and buttoned-up, rarely cutting loose or deviating from what feels like a meticulously focused-group script of what he should say at any given time. One of his funniest but also most telling moments comes early on, when one of the directors pushes him to talk about his experiences growing up, only to be met with a blunt “I’m not talking about that.”
That’s the general vibe of the film. Perry feels extremely reluctant to let the audience in at all, or share anything about his personal life. So much of the runtime is taken up by fellow celebrities (Oprah, Gayle King, Whoopi Goldberg, among others) hyping Perry up, or Perry’s business associates fawning over his success. Lucky Johnson, Perry’s cousin, is a standout narrator, but also the only person Perry has a non-business connection with to establish themselves as a meaningful presence. In fairness to Bekele and Ortiz, they did try to interview Perry’s father Emmitt Perry Sr., who the director is estranged with after a childhood marked by abuse, and the film shows their failed attempts to secure his participation.
But it’s noticeable that the vast majority of footage of Perry talking about his childhood trauma, theoretically a major part of the film, is culled from prior interviews he did with Oprah or on late-night talk shows. That’s a recurring trend; almost every single thing the film tells us about Perry’s personal life is something easily searched online. Despite some focus towards the end of the film on his desire to be a great father to his son, “Maxine’s Baby” doesn’t even passingly reference his 2020 split with said son’s mother Gelila Bekele. An all-access documentary, this is not.
Still, the movie is pleasantly weightless for most of its runtime, running through and recapping Perry’s rise from tiny budget theater to a genuine Hollywood force and the eventual owner of his own movie studio with a brisk, likable enough pace. The film is most successful when it provides the grounding to make all of its triumph feel deserved. A montage tracing how Perry’s first movie “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” defied expectations from white box office pundits to become a massive box office success in 2005, featuring several industry figures like former Lionsgate president Michael Paseornek, manages to successfully convey why Perry’s success was so revelatory. And the film’s closing sequence at the opening night of Tyler Perry Studios, where Goldberg gets candid about the experience of seeing a Black man own a major film studio, is undeniably rousing.
It’s when it does, or doesn’t, address the ugly aspects of Perry’s career, and the criticism he’s received, that the film plummets in quality. For starters, the film occasionally responds to the basic fact that Perry’s work, from his earliest plays to his current films, have received almost universal critical lashings with an “the audience decides what’s great” sentiment. That’s unsurprising. What’s more surprising is how the film awkwardly acknowledges the criticism Perry has received from critics for stereotypical, offensive depictions of the Black community, but doesn’t really have a compelling defense against them beyond Perry saying they hurt to hear. In particular, the film features several soundbites from Perry about how important it is to tell Black women’s stories, but doesn’t really go into the criticisms of perceived misogyny in his work; there’s no discussion, for example, of the blowback against his 2013 film “Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor,” which was accused of using HIV as a plot device to punish its female lead for infidelity.
Then there are his business practices, including an alleged history of anti-union behavior that goes entirely unmentioned. Their omission would stick out less if the film wasn’t so fawning over Perry’s extremely intense commitment to his work, to the point of feeling like a parody of a certain rise-and-grind mindset; Gayle King at one point says that, although Perry is a demanding boss, “he doesn’t ask anyone anything he doesn’t ask himself.” And the movie treats Perry’s decision to restart filming of Tyler Perry Studios during the very early period of the pandemic through a “camp quarantine” experiment, where workers lived on the studio, as an unqualified good move. There’s a lot of thorny questions you could ask Tyler Perry if you were making a documentary about him. “Maxine’s Baby” asks zero.
Then again, complicated feelings about Perry run almost entirely against what “Maxine’s Baby” is about. The film clearly was made not to convert new fans to Perry’s work, but to service the existing fanbase that already loves him. Everything about the film’s messaging and presentation — particularly the decision to censor any cursing — feels calibrated to appeal to the Southern Black Christian audience that Perry has spent his career writing for. That’s fair enough; not every movie needs to be for everyone. But enjoyers of Perry would probably like a real feature film about the man more than the glorified two-hour infomercial for Tyler Perry Studios we got instead.
“Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story” premiered at AFI Festival in Los Angeles October 27. It will release on Prime Video November 22.