In 1995, Tyler Perry was a broke, struggling screenwriter who would sneak into Alliance Theatre plays during intermission, entering with the smokers.
At a post-play reception for an August Wilson play, he sought advice from the esteemed Black playwright. Wilson told him to write from his heart. Soon after, out poured “A Jazzman’s Blues,” a screenplay set in Louisiana in the 1940s about star-crossed lovers kept apart due to family issues, colorism and the racism of the Jim Crow era.
But he found success later that decade with plays focused on broad comedy and soapy morality tales. He tucked “A Jazzman’s Blues” away for a quarter century. Only recently did he feel comfortable bringing it to life. The result: Perry’s first ever historical drama set to come out on Netflix Friday.
“Unfortunately, the timing lined up in a not-so-great way meaning that we are in a place in our country where there are certain figures in politics who are trying to water down the history of the Black experience in America, the pains and horrors of Jim Crow and slavery, the banning of books and homogenizing of our pain,” said Perry, 53, to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a brief interview before film screenings at IPIC Theaters in Midtown earlier this week.
He is well versed on the history, hearing first-hand accounts from the likes of former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young and the late civil rights activist and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. “I wanted to say something in my own way,” he said.
All in all, “A Jazzman’s Blues” is a serious romantic movie with big musical set pieces choreographed by Debbie Allen and some dramatic Perry hallmarks like an acidic sibling rivalry, drug addiction and wayward fathers.
“This is the first time I’ve really enjoyed making a movie, every moment,” Perry said. “This was a labor of love. I wanted every moment to be placed in a picture frame.”
Perry always shoots his own films in Georgia so he moved “A Jazzman’s Blues” fictionally from his home state of Louisiana to the Savannah area, where most of the exteriors of the movie were shot last year. Most interiors, plus a short outdoor scene set at military base Fort McPherson during World War II, were shot at Tyler Perry Studios on land once occupied by Fort McPherson.
Back in the 1990s, Perry imagined A-listers like Will Smith, Diana Ross and Halle Berry starring in the movie along with himself. (”I was a dreamer,” he said.) But in 2022, that wouldn’t work. “We’ve all aged out,” he said.
So Perry, as he has in the past with actors like Kerry Washington and Idris Elba in his earlier films, found relative newcomers to play most of the major roles for “A Jazzman’s Blues.” Joshua Boone is Bayou, a naive, poor Georgia musician, who in 1937 falls in love with LeAnne (Solea Pfeiffer), a confident light-skinned Black teen. But LeAnne’s disapproving mother splits them apart and they take off for Boston, where they “pass for white,” which was a common way for Blacks who could get away with it to safely traverse white society back in the day.
A decade later, LeAnne returns to the Savannah area, married to a white man. Bayou and LeAnne, of course, get drawn back together. Their tryst doesn’t remain a secret for long. To avoid likely death by the hands of angry white supremacists, Bayou flees to Chicago with his brother, a fellow musician. There, Bayou finds success as a singer, but the entire movie is pointing to a Shakespearean ending.
This is Perry’s third Netflix project following “A Fall From Grace” and “A Madea Homecoming.” He is also juggling multiple TV series on BET, BET+ and Nickelodeon while planning to build an entertainment district featuring a theatre, retail shops and restaurants on 37 acres of property adjacent to Tyler Perry Studios.
He announced the purchase more than a year ago. It’s still pending.
“I’m closing any day on the properties,” he said. “Even when I purchased the first property, it took almost two years. There’s a lot of red tape. Once I get it closed, it will be full steam ahead.”
But he said supply-chain issues and the resulting inflation have caused him to delay expanding his studio. He said he was going to start erecting 10 more stages last month on top of the 12 existing stages he built five years ago. Unfortunately, he said the cost to build each stage has doubled to $16 million from 2017.
Perry didn’t become a billionaire (according to Forbes two years ago) by spending willy nilly. Price gouging, he said, “is out of control. Every builder that I know of note has put a halt on everything until it gets back to a normal number.”
Entering 2020, he had plans to open Tyler Perry Studios to public tours. The pandemic put the kibosh on that. And he said even as the COVID-19 recedes as a major concern, he is still fiddling with the tour on paper to ensure it’s a great experience.
“You only get one shot to make a good first impression,” he said. “It’s not at the level of a Universal Studios tour. That’s the level I want it to be.”
WHERE TO WATCH
“A Jazzman’s Blues,” out Friday, Sept. 23 on Netflix
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.