Hollywood multihyphenate Tyler Perry recently described the process of making his new Netflix drama A Jazzman’s Blues, a film he wrote over two decades ago, as “the first time [he’s] really enjoyed making a movie.” This admission is a bit puzzling from a filmmaker hellbent on unleashing his often egregiously made movies (and even worse wigs) onto the public nearly every year. He’s also historically gone out of his way to boast about his ability to produce whatever projects he wants, despite mainstream Hollywood’s initial misgivings about him.
Whatever Perry meant by that, I’m not too sure. But I immediately buy the sentiment watching A Jazzman’s Blues, a movie that has all the trappings of a fictional work set in the post-Antebellum South and conventions of a sweeping romantic blockbuster, but is executed with an unusual amount of care from the often slapdash auteur. It feels like we’re watching a fan of the most traditional, crowd-pleasing Hollywood movies take an ultimately safe but uncharacteristic stab at “serious,” thoughtful movie-making.
The result is often contrived and predictable, especially during the film’s final hour. However, a tight, subdued script and a charming cast of talented, lesser-known actors make A Jazzman’s Blues one of the more watchable dramas Perry has crafted in a long time.
The Oscar-baity sheen of A Jazzman’s Blues recalls Perry’s 2010 film adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play For Colored Girls, which, nowadays, is mostly spoken about in reference to an extremely upsetting child-murder scene and jokes about noted movie villain Michael Ealy. That play was ripe with the sort of tragic subject matter Perry loves to depict on screen, particularly miserable women experiencing abuse from men. In his latest effort, Perry pulls back somewhat on these overly salacious tendencies, despite delivering another whole-hearted tragedy.
We open the film with a frame story about a racist, white politician running for reelection in Georgia in 1987. An elderly Black woman comes into his office and asks him to look into a 40-year-old case of a murdered Black man, leaving a mysterious stack of letters on his desk. We then travel back to 1937 to a rural Georgia town where a musically-inclined 17-year-old boy named Horace John Boyd (Joshua Boone), nicknamed Bayou, resides with his musician father (E. Roger Mitchell), his tough but loving mother (Amirah Vann) and his favored, light-skinned brother (Austin Scott). Bayou’s relatively quaint existence—with the exception of some family tension and, of course, the racial turmoil of the times—begins to unfurl after a romantic encounter with a light-skinned girl named Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), who lives with her abusive grandfather after being abandoned by her mother.
Bayou and Leanne’s quick affection for each other is the sort of overly intense puppy love you’ve seen in Romeo + Juliet and West Side Story that proves extremely polarizing to the people around them. In the case of this Black-centered story, the challenges they face as a couple are entirely rooted in colorism and Leanne’s decision as an adult to pass as white. Bayou, a dark-skinned man, is put in several life-threatening situations for attempting to reunite with her over the course of a decade. And despite his eventual success and relative safety in Chicago as a jazz singer, he’s still willing to risk it all for a woman we don’t know much about aside from her obvious beauty.
That being said, A Jazzman’s Blues is about as straightforward and familiar of a tragic love story as those aforementioned works, making its coda blatantly obvious by the second act (and maybe before then). Even with the intercommunal topic of colorism as the film’s primary fixation, Perry doesn’t really explore the nuances of that theme like a typical passing story.
There’s a broad acknowledgement of the privilege that light-skinned Black people can wield against their darker-skinned peers. For instance, while Bayou actively pursues Leanne, she seems genuinely ignorant and unconcerned with the harm that her interest in him—first as a light-skinned woman and later as someone passing as white and married to a white man—causes Bayou, his family, and their community of Black people. The only dark-skinned woman in the film, a friend named Citsy (Milauna Jackson), is forced to become Leanne and Bayou’s liaison. There’s also a contentious relationship between Bayou and his brother, who feels entitled to a better life because of his light complexion and begins to spiral when Bayou becomes a successful musician.
There’s a few moments of empathy for Leanne’s experience, first as a victim of abuse and later as a Black woman trying to survive by any means possible. However, Perry’s often biblically coded films have a tendency to punish Black women for their transgressions (or simply their desires) in a way he doesn’t with Black men. Notably, we’ve seen this in his 2013 film Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, where the main female character is diagnosed with AIDS after cheating on her average Joe husband with a wealthy man. Similarly, Madea’s Family Reunion centers on a romance between a woman and a humble bus driver, while another female character married to a rich investment banker spends the movie getting physically abused.
Likewise, in A Jazzman’s Blues, Leanne is left to grapple with the film’s overarching lesson, while there’s little to no interrogation of Bayou’s weird obsession with this light-skinned woman who keeps putting him and his loved ones in peril.
Perhaps because this film is less melodramatic than Perry’s previous works, I found these flaws slightly more digestible. (You also know what you’re in for when you watch a Perry project at this point). And even with all of its foreseeable turns and obvious tropes, I found myself gripped by the story. I credit the ensemble of actors for elevating some pretty basic material, as well as the charming musical sequences that infuse some joy into this ultimately heartbreaking tale. Overall, A Jazzman’s Blues is a solid popcorn film for lovers of a forbidden romance and a step in a more serious direction for Perry.
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