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Tyler Perry’s "A Jazzman’s Blues" focuses on evils in the Jim Crow south

 Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office

Check out the long list of films and TV series produced, written, and directed by Tyler Perry, and it will be clear that this talented filmmaker knows how to tell a good story. Such is the case with his latest auteurist feature, A Jazzman’s Blues, which is trending on Netflix.

Within a two-hour period, viewers will experience the hatreds, violence, poverty, and sins of the Jim Crow South. The film opens in the late 1980s in a small town in Georgia, when an older woman of color barges into the office of a forty-year-old white man who seems to be a lawyer. She hands him a bunch of old letters which will explain a murder in 1947, and this leads us into Perry’s story.

It is 1937 in a rural part of Georgia. A poor black family is introduced. The two teen-aged sons, Bayou and Willie Earl, hate each other. The father is a brute. The mother is a victim of her husband’s hatred. So much of this film is devoted to people abusing other people. Family dysfunction, brutality against innocence, and miserable white bigots preying upon the blacks.

Few characters are likable. The blacks include disgusting and deceitful people. The whites are a loathsome lot. Oddly, only the unexpected character of a German Jew who has survived the Holocaust, is without flaws among the whites.

Perry focuses his film on Bayou who falls in love with Leanne. Leanne’s life is not her own. She is sexually molested by her drunken grandfather and used as a ticket to a better life by her evil mother, a character with attributes similar to Cruella de Vil!

What starts as drama becomes melodrama. At times, the melodrama is so heavy that it crowds out the quality in the script. The problems of each character escalate and become more and more complicated. Young love becomes heart-breaking, dangerous. Drugs enter the plot. Two black characters venture into “passing” and wind up as kin to a Negro-hating bastard of a sheriff. The viewer is belted from all directions with stories of loathing and woe.

Still, the scenes of inhumanity are interrupted by interludes of terrific jazz and swing numbers. There are scenes of black people dancing to the music of local talent, and there are lush musical numbers in a Chicago night club. The differences in the music are interesting. Back home in Georgia the music is ethnic, jazzy in a folkloric way. In the fancy club, where only whites are allowed but the entertainers and service staff are black, the music is more Duke Ellington/Ella Fitzgerald in flavor.

According to the publicity, Tyler Perry spent twenty-seven years preparing A Jazzman’s Blues. It seems he was waiting for the climate to be ripe, and it certainly is ripe now.

One detail is troubling. The characters who successfully “pass” as white are mixed-race. It’s clear to the eye of the beholder. Just as in Rebecca Hall’s film from last year, Passing, the story suffers believability because the actors are miscast.

Joshua Boone is terrific as Bayou. He’s a sensitive and talented performer. Debbie Allen, noted for creating dance numbers for the 1980s classic TV series Fame, is choreographer. A Jazzman’s Blues is an apt title because the blues doesn’t refer only to the music. Life in the Jim Crow South was full of the blues, despair, for the black population. Clearly, Perry feels that despair, and his feelings make him want to show every aspect of racial hatred. At times, that intention muddies his story and turns his drama into heavy melodrama.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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