When A Madea Homecoming was released on Netflix earlier this year — just three years after Tyler Perry had proclaimed he had made his final “Madea” movie — I was again forced to reckon with my thoughts on Perry as a filmmaker. Nobody has ever been so consistently inconsistent as the 53-year-old writer/director, who has parlayed warm albeit stereotypical Black characters into a massively lucrative enterprise. As of late, he’s become less a commercial filmmaker and taken the Netflix route. Like Adam Sandler, many of his films might sting a little less knowing you didn’t have to put on pants and shell out an upwards of $13 to see them.
But along comes A Jazzman’s Blues. It might not be Perry’s most entertaining film to date, but it’s certainly his most accomplished. Beyond the smug judgment I could offer in saying that it feels like an actual movie, Perry finally takes the time and energy to show his filmmaking prowess. Far too many of his projects show their hasty production schedules and hurried editing. Perry is somebody who has been juggling multiple TV shows and movies at any given time for over a decade. He’s merely one man. And A Jazzman’s Blues gives off the impression that he had one thing on his mind when making it and the paramount goal was to make a truly great movie.
The story opens by illustrating its framework, with a Black woman so disgusted by comments from a Georgia Attorney General regarding race and welfare that she turns the TV off with a scoff. The elderly woman winds up marching to his office, dropping a handful of letters onto his desk, and demands he investigate a murder that happened over 40 years ago. He thinks she’s nuts, until he starts reading the letters himself.
Cut to 1937, where a young man nicknamed Bayou (Joshua Boone) is raised by a family of musicians. His father harbors contempt for his son, due to his inability to play an instrument. He even goes as far as to humiliate Bayou by demanding he play a trumpet in his ragtag band, his ineptitude immediately prompting scorn from gatherers. Boone’s brother Willie Earl (Austin Scott) is dad’s real favorite; their mother, Hattie Mae (Amirah Vann), is Bayou’s only source of solace.
Until Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), a biracial outcast, enters the picture. The two seek refuge in one another, waiting until almost the witching hour to sneak off to a nearby pasture. They converse, she teaches him how to read, and the two form a cutesy romance. Soon, however, Leanne is taken up North by her mother. See, Leanne is light-skinned enough to pass as a white woman, and Boston would be the perfect place for her to meet a rich Caucasian and build a life of luxury. Bayou is inconsolable, but soon develops an affinity for vocal jazz, which he parlays into a career, much to the contempt of Willie Earl, who is relegated to singing backup. Willie Earl turns to heroin to ease the burdens of his more successful brother and a father who ditched him, despite always singing his praises.
A Jazzman’s Blues finds Perry playing a decisively different tune than his usual pictures, which tend to double-down on racial stereotypes. Here, in this Jim Crow South, the color of one’s skin and the way they act is no laughing matter. There’s a maturation of Perry’s usual schtick that finds him older, on the back-end of middle-age, and grappling with a country that’s plagued by racial turmoil, ignorance, and injustice. Perry wrote this script back in 1995. Had it been filmed and released during that period, you could almost see it playing to a lot of empty seats ala John Singleton’s underrated Rosewood. In the modern day, this tale sadly has a sense of urgency, and isn’t as reflective as it should be regarding a nation’s progress in those aforementioned areas.
The cast is terrific. From Boone’s delicate, humanistic rendering of Bayou to Solea Pfeiffer’s complicated and sometimes contemptible Leanne, they work hard at getting you invested in these individuals early on. Not even Perry’s long-standing tendency to overplay dramatic moments gets in the way of their capabilities. His continued fluency as a filmmaker is actively demonstrated, from gentle pans to dynamic interior shots. The cast feels assisted as opposed to hung out to dry.
A Jazzman’s Blues isn’t flawless, but it furthers one of my oldest opinions: Tyler Perry remains one of the most interesting yet confounding American filmmakers. When he truly takes his time and puts forth obvious effort, he almost always comes out on top.
NOTE: A Jazzman’s Blues is now streaming on Netflix.
Starring: Joshua Boone, Solea Pfeiffer, Amirah Vann, Austin Scott, and Milauna Jemai Jackson. Directed by: Tyler Perry.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!