TORONTO — Tyler Perry has directed his first screenplay, 26 years after writing it.
“A Jazzman’s Blues,” which is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, was Perry’s first stab at screenwriting long before Madea made him a media mogul, back when he was pouring what little money he had into less successful Atlanta stage shows.
After directing numerous films, dozens of TV episodes and expanding his 330-acre Tyler Perry Studios empire in Atlanta, Perry has returned to that old script, without hardly changing a word, for his first film for Netflix. (“A Jazzman’s Blues” begins streaming Sept. 23.)
“The timing seemed to be right,” Perry said in an interview ahead of the film’s premiere Sunday.
Set in mid-century Georgia, the movie stars Joshua Boon as Bayou, a juke joint-sensation who, before leaving to make it big in Chicago, falls in love with Leanne (Solea Pfieffer). Years later, she returns to their hometown married and passing for white. It’s a romance sketched against the backdrop of the segregated South and the era’s flourishing music scene, with songs by Terence Blanchard and choreography by Debbie Allen.
Remarks have been edited for brevity.
AP: What was going on in your life when you wrote this?
PERRY: I was really struggling and poor. It was a really difficult time. I got a chance to see an August Wilson play. If I’m not mistaken, I think it was “Seven Guitars.” I would have to sneak it an intermission and go in when people came out for a smoke. I couldn’t afford a ticket. There was an afterparty at a little cafe and I ran into him. I told him what kind of shows I was doing and how there was so much more I wanted to do. He encouraged me to not be ashamed of what I was doing but also to do whatever else I wanted to. I went home and started writing and “Jazzman” showed up.
AP: Where did the story come from?
PERRY: I grew up New Orleans and I have family in rural Louisiana. That’s where I spent summers with my grandmother. So I knew this world very well. When I was a young kid working on Bourbon Street, I’d hear all kind of music. As I was writing, all this music was in my head. I wasn’t trying to write a period piece about someone passing in the South. A couple years ago, I remember seeing a picture of my grandmother and great grandmother who looked like white women. My grandmother married my grandfather, who was clearly a Black man. According to my aunt — I’m fact checking this now — there are people in my family who passed for white.
AP: Was that something your family talked about?
PERRY: No. It’s the strangest thing from the generations before me. I find this true with my Jewish friends who have grandparents who survived the Holocaust. It’s just not talked about. It’s not spoken of. I feel that it’s a horrible disservice to the future children and people who are benefitting from the atrocities that our families endured. If you don’t know the facts of what happened and how it happened, I think you do a disservice to your family.
AP: This might be your most ambitious film yet. Did you feel you had to build up to it?
PERRY: One hundred percent. “Diary of a Mad Woman,” my first film, I didn’t direct because I didn’t know how. It took all of these films and all of these television episodes to really understand filmmaking. I really credit David Fincher and (Ben) Affleck when I was on “Gone Girl” where I really started to understand it and get it. For me, it had always been that the camera was just there to tell the story. I didn’t take in the fullness of all the things that the camera can represent.
AP: So why tackle it now?
PERRY: I’ve been strategic. I’ve had to make sure that I super-serve my niche, my audience. I needed those successes to be able to get it here. It’s all been part of the plan. The reason that it came up now is that I’ve been watching so many politicians and powers that be trying to downplay and whitewash the experience of Black people in America. I think it’s up to us as storytellers to bring those real stories to the forefront because of this assault on history.
AP: Georgia has been at the center of some of the battles over voting rights, abortion rights and school curriculum. How do you feel about having your studio there?
PERRY: I have two views to that. One is: Being on the very ground and home of Dr. Martin Luther King and seeing their fight, seeing the vigor that it took to get things done. There’s a richness there that I thrive on, that I plug into, that I appreciate. On the other side, we’re dealing with all this gerrymandering, voting-rights issues, abortion issues. All these moments are happening but I have to focus on the fighters so that I’m able to function in a state that I love.
AP: Some in Hollywood have previously called for boycotting productions in Georgia. Last year, the Will Smith film “Emancipation” withdrew from shooting in the state. What do you think about those kind of measures?
PERRY: Some of them I think are extreme. We have this cancel culture now that if someone does something you don’t like or says something you don’t like, they’re canceled. If the state makes a law you don’t like, you don’t go there. The reason I take issue with all of it is every four years there’s an election, or every two years with the midterms. We get an opportunity to try to change it. So I think drastic, immediate shutdowns can be harmful to people who work here. At this moment, I have over $400 million in the ground at Tyler Perry Studios. And there are many people who come to work there who would have never gotten a chance to be in this business. I know Hollywood is really big on diversity now. Well, you don’t get more diverse than Tyler Perry Studios. If you’re trying to boycott the state, you’re boycotting those people, too.
AP: You’ve had a content deal with Viacom for years. This is your first film with Netflix. Are you looking for a bigger platform?
PERRY: I’ve built this machine and it’s ready to produce tons and tons and tons of content. So I want to be in a place where that content can be created and a place where I can express things like “Jazzman” or whatever I want to do next. I have a zombie movie that I’ve worked on for a while that I want to do. I just want to be in a place where I can cultivate all those things.