But on Wednesday night, the filmmaker was honored by the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. The civil rights leader lashed out at Perry's black detractors, calling them "proper Negroes" who don't understand regular black folk.
"This man never apologized for who we were," said Sharpton, who is also a cable TV host, at his second annual Triumph Awards.
Sharpton said Perry has given work to many black actors who have been ignored by Hollywood, and has created an empire on his own terms: "The ultimate pride is where you don't have to bend and adjust for others to accept you. ... He didn't go mainstream, he brought mainstream to us."
Perry was given the Chairman's Award. Also honored: Chris Rock and his wife, Malaak, and California's attorney general, Kamala Harris. Perry - whose films include "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," "Why Did I Get Married?" and "Daddy's Little Girls" - was recently named by Forbes magazine as the highest-earning man in Hollywood. He writes, directs and produces his films and sometimes stars in them; he's best known for his Madea character, the foul-mouthed, sassy grandmother who has appeared in many of his movies.
He is also responsible for the TBS comedy show "House of Payne."
But Perry's films rarely get critical acclaim, and some in the black community have accused him of perpetuating stereotypes.
Perry acknowledged his detractors as he thanked Sharpton for the award.
"When you start out and you're doing things and you're trying to do the right things, and you find these attacks happening, and you try and figure out, `How do you handle this? How do you deal with this? How do you go there?' So to have someone like you who has done all that you have done ... and have inspired and encouraged and fought for so many people, to stand here and to give me this award, this is really, really awesome," Perry said.
Perry said black people first gave him success, and he has sought to tell his community's stories. He accused his critics of trying to remove themselves from their roots.
"I stayed with who we are, and what I wish I could get us to understand as a people is that instead of getting your education and running from us, you need to ground and root yourself in who we are. Every other culture in this country knows the value of us as black people but we don't know it ourselves," he said.
"Somebody said to me about the `House of Payne,' `Why do you have fat black people on television?' Because there are fat black people in the world. It's not a stereotype. This is who we are, we need to stop running from our parents and our grandparents and our uncles, we need to stop running from them and embrace them."
Perry said his Madea character is silly, but said his films have important messages.
"I have the ear of the people, and I would be a fool to walk away from the gift that God has given me because somebody out there, a few people out there, have a problem with it," he said.
After his speech, Sharpton announced that Perry had given the National Action Network a $200,000 donation, to which Sharpton exclaimed Madea's familiar phrase: "Hallelujer!"
Nekesa Mumbi Moody is the AP's music editor. Follow her at http://www.twitter.com/nekesamumbi