This story contains spoilers for Netflix film A Jazzman’s Blues. Just months after resurrecting Madea for a film that no one asked for (Madea as Beyoncé? Did we ask??), Tyler Perry is back with another Netflix project, but the latest from the polarizing filmmaker and actor is nothing like we’ve ever seen from him. A Jazzman’s Blues marks Perry’s official foray into a new, more pensive chapter of his filmmaking, exploring a dark time in American history through the romantic tragedy of a young Black couple growing up in the Jim Crow south. The movie has its many pitfalls — Tyler Perry is gonna Tyler Perry — but we’re finally getting a different side of the movie mogul. Could this be his long-awaited step in the right direction?
A Jazzman’s Blues transports audiences to the 1940s where a tragic love story is about to unfold in a small Georgia town with a stark racial divide. Our protagonist is Bayou (Premature’s Joshua Boone), a talented but misunderstood young man who finds himself an outsider in his tight-knit community and even in his own family. The arrival of LeeAnne (Solea Pfeiffer) quickly brings an end to his social isolation as the lovers quickly fall for each other, their courtship fortified during each secret rendezvous under the moonlight. But life, in this case a devious grandfather and a meddlesome mother, gets in the way of their true love. Before they can make things official with a wedding, the pair is forcefully separated.
Many long years pass, but Bayou has never forgotten his promise to marry LeeAnne, the unread (and unanswered) love letters that he wrote to her and his permanent status as a bachelor are proof of his undying love. And, as it turns out, LeeAnne feels the same way. Her situation is a bit more complicated, however. Not only did she marry a powerful white man while she was away, but she did so under the guise of her new identity as a white woman, an infraction that could result in her death if she’s found out. Things get trickier when Bayou and LeeAnne cross paths once again in a new town, and sparks continue to fly between them to the displeasure of their respective families. Their dogged pursuit of each other in spite of their circumstances, like all Shakespearean stories, leads to a tragic end; in a twist of cruel fate, after being accosted by LeeAnne’s husband and a mob of angry white men, Bayou’s lifeless body is found lynched near the same tree where he and LeeAnne fell in love.
From the cinematography to the score, you have to hand it to Perry — A Jazzman’s Blues is quite the step up. We can’t even apply the same jokes about his past productions’ questionable wigs to this film because not even one hair was out of place. (That’s the power of a Netflix budget, baby!) But beyond the aesthetics, the film’s plot also shows some growth in Perry as a creative. Free of the usual comedic antics of the other films in his wheelhouse, A Jazzman’s Blues stands out in its reckoning of a particularly sensitive topic for Perry’s audiences, grounding itself in the complex dynamic of the Jim Crow era. As Bayou and LeeAnne (but mostly Bayou) fight tooth and nail for their love, the hazards of systemic racism and classism prevent them from making it a reality, and their devastating journey is an emotional one that we won’t soon forget.
In a fictional world where literally anything could happen, Black people shouldn’t always have to suffer. Love and hope and happiness can always be valid options in the imaginary — we have to remember that.
Unfortunately, traces of the toxic Tyler Perry touch can still be found in the film. Perry’s movies are known for being overwhelmingly cruel to its Black woman characters, unnecessarily heavy on the plot lines that leave them disgraced, destitute, or, in worse cases, dead, and A Jazzman’s Blues follows the same unfortunate pattern. Bayou’s mom Hattie Mae (Amirah Vann) is abandoned by both her husband and oldest son, forced into destitution at the hand of the local police sheriff, and is later the first one to find her youngest son’s dead body hanging from a tree. LeeAnne’s suffering as a white-passing Black woman is compounded by a controlling, self-hating mother, an abusive husband, and the guilt of having to watch her son become a raging white supremacist without being able to tell him the truth about who he really is.
Though the violence that unfolds in the story does technically match the brutality of the time period, there will always be something unsettling about the level of Black female suffering that takes place in Perry’s movies. The same could be said about the especially violent way that Bayou’s story ended, which evokes that age-old discourse about the unnecessary pervasiveness of Black trauma in a fictional world where literally anything could happen, Black people shouldn’t always have to suffer. Love and hope and happiness can always be valid options in the imaginary — we have to remember that.
Telling this type of story has always been Perry’s goal, but it took a long time to get here — almost 30 years, to be exact.
“I’ve been very intentional in my positioning of myself as far as in the industry,” Perry said of his career trajectory on an episode of Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace. “But [A Jazzman’s Blues] I held on so long to because I was waiting for the right time.”
The idea for the film came to him 27 years ago after seeing one of August Wilson’s plays onstage and having an encouraging moment with the legendary playwright as a young man. It was Perry’s first ever screenplay, and the characters were reflections of people in his own life who were battling their own demons, but he didn’t think the world would be ready to receive the story just yet. So he shelved the script and instead worked to develop the Madea Cinematic universe and other projects until the time was right, until he had the money, the network, and the platform to tell this precious story the right way.
A Jazzman’s Blues is far from a perfect movie, but it is without a doubt Perry’s best work in almost 20 years of working in Hollywood. As Perry continues working as an artist and as a storyteller, with this film, it’s clear that fans can look forward to a new era of Tyler Perry Productions — hopefully one with more nuance and care in the future.