Tyler Perry is the type of filmmaker whose name can appear as a possessive in front of a movie’s title. There’s Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, Tyler Perry’s Temptation and, of course, the wildly successful Madea Franchise. Across two dozen features, Perry has built a directing career that leaves both studio executives and his audience knowing exactly what they’re getting into. Tyler Perry — the name and the brand — is synonymous with a certain type of movie: unabashedly commercial fare with moral messaging. As Tyler Perry the filmmaker points out during a phone conversation from his office at his eponymous Atlanta studio, A Jazzman’s Blues, his latest effort, is not that movie: “People are not expecting this kind of movie from me in any sense, but I always knew it was there.”
The film, which premieres Sept. 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival, is based on the first screenplay Perry ever wrote, and it might never have been made without a particularly fortuitous meeting with one of America’s most preeminent playwrights. Broke and living in Atlanta in the mid-’90s, Perry spent a fair amount of time sneaking into the city’s storied Alliance Theater during intermissions. After watching a performance of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars (or at least the latter half of it), Perry summoned up the courage to approach Wilson in a nearby cafe afterwards. “I was telling him the kind of plays that I had written and what I wanted to do, and he was so encouraging with me,” Perry recalls. “I went home, and Jazzman poured out of me.”
Jazzman follows Bayou, played by newcomer Joshua Boone, a young Black man in 1940s Louisiana who finds success as a jazz singer but rekindles his romance with the sweetheart from his youth, now a married woman and passing for white, ultimately pitting him against the racist leadership. of a small Southern town. The project marked Perry’s first real foray into Hollywood, and at the time, the aspiring filmmaker had grand ambitions of starring in the film alongside a supporting cast of Will Smith, Halle Berry and Diana Ross (“I had big, big dreams” he admits. ). The script initially gained some interest, as Perry met with Debbie Allen, who had a producing deal with DreamWorks at the time (Allen remains a friend), before being set up in the mid-2000s at Lionsgate, his longtime theatrical home. But, Perry says, “we never could get it done.”
Then the Madea movies took off. But even as he began to enjoy the success he longed for, insecurities began to emerge about continuing to produce hits. Second chances, Perry notes, were not easy to come by for Black filmmakers in the studio system. He looked at the script for Jazzman and thought, “I’m going to do this one day, but right now I have to establish that I am a box office draw.”
Some 25 years, a 330-acre studio complex and a billion-dollar valuation later, Perry finally felt he had reached a point where he could make his dream project a reality. This rationale could be read simultaneously as a testament to Perry’s singular drive and an indictment of an industry where a Black creative only felt secure enough to make a passion project after he was standing behind the gates of his own studio.
“It didn’t happen then, but times change,” says Allen, who did the choreography for Jazzman. “And if it did happen then, they probably wouldn’t have let him direct it. This [movie] says a lot about who he really is.”
Thanks in part to Jazzman, Perry has found himself grappling with history — personal, professional and otherwise. Set in the Jim Crow-era South, the film tackles racism, colorism and white supremacist revisionism. Recently, Perry has dug into his family’s genealogy, including the discovery of a picture of a grandmother whom he never had the chance to meet. “She looked like a white woman,” Perry says. “As I’m doing the research now, we think that there’s another part of my family that passed for white because there’s a town in Louisiana that’s named after them. And that’s the only way that could have happened.”
Within his own family, Perry has had direct experiences with colorism. “Where I grew up, the lighter the skin you had, the better you were and the more successful you could be,” he says. “My father adored my older sister — he called her ‘Red’ because she was so light-skinned. And me and my [other] sister were treated poorly because we had brown skin.” (Perry has long talked about his difficult relationship with his father, including a history of abuse.)
Although Perry wrote the first drafts of Jazzman more than 20 years ago, with the recent movement to suppress discussions of slavery and race relations in classrooms, he says the film is now potentially more relevant than ever. “[There is an] assault on our history — the history of Black people in America, the history of slavery, the history of Jim Crow,” he says. “There’s this effort to homogenize it and water it down and rewrite it.” (In June 2021, Georgia’s state board of education approved a resolution that suggested limitations to how race and slavery should be taught in public schools.)
Building his business in Georgia — a common battleground for voting rights and abortion access that also happens to be a tax-incentivized production hub — has meant Perry sits at the cross section of his home state’s politics and a Hollywood in a near-constant existential tug. -of-war between bottom lines and professed liberal values. “I am very aware that I am a Black man in Georgia,” he says. “And even though it’s 2022, I still have to be extremely careful how I move through politics.”
Indeed, while he has hosted fundraisers for the likes of Barack Obama and more recently prompted his social media followers to vote in the Senate runoff election that was later won by the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, Perry has always taken special care to avoid overt displays of partisanship. “I have thousands of people coming to work here — a lot of Black and brown people who’ve never had a shot in the industry are coming to work through these gates,” he says. “So, there’s so much I want to say and so much I want to do, but I have to think about all of them as well.”
Then there’s dealing with his critics. While Tyler Perry Productions was a source of early career credits for such A-list talents as Idris Elba, Viola Davis and Kerry Washington, in casting for his main character in Jazzman, Perry went out to several up-and-comers, to no avail. “We were talking, they were really excited, and it just fell apart,” he says. “And here’s what I understand: They have management and they have teams. And the management and teams will say, ‘I don’t know about this because of Tyler Perry’s …’ ” he pauses, giving himself time to find the right words, “because of my not-so-great relationship with the critics of my movies.”
Perry is acutely aware of his status with film critics. The average Metacritic score of the films Perry has directed is 38.6. This awareness comes with an added feeling of responsibility towards the cast of Jazzman, which features mostly young talents. “I just wanted to protect them as much as I can,” he says.
Growing up in Virginia, Boone watched the Madea movies with his family and was a fan early on but notes that his tastes eventually diverged. “His work, to a degree, raised me,” Boone says. “I shared with him that I was his biggest fan and became one of his harshest critics.”
Boone makes a point of emphasizing what he initially saw as the two sides of Tyler Perry: “From a business standpoint, especially as a Black man in this country, I have always had a desire to be around him. Tyler Perry, the man, I would love to meet. Tyler Perry, the artist, I [was] iffy about whether or not I wanted to make that happen.” But when he read the script for Jazzman, Boone saw the opportunity to both tell “a story of impact” and have a front-row seat to how Perry really works. He now likens him to a modern-day Charlie Chaplin — a creative who directs, writes, acts and produces, along with owning his own studio — and believes Perry doesn’t get his due. Notes Boone, “From the outside in, we have missed so much.”
For his part, Perry seems more than ready to reveal parts of himself that may have been missed. “This was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed directing,” he says. “Because when you’re doing things like Madea and Why Did I Get Married?, I really enjoy the finished product and what my audience gets from it and how much they love it. But the process to get there was always just work.”
After Jazzman, he looks forward to diving into more of the unexpected. There is a nearly done script for a World War II project and an idea for a zombie movie that he’s been kicking around: “I want to play in a few different areas, just to let people know that just because I hadn’t done it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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