Tyler Perry is not my favorite. But A Jazzman’s Blues looked different from his usual fare. I thought I’d take a look. If I didn’t like it, I’d just switch off and move on. It was different. And that difference resulted in a very good story about love and tragedy in the Jim Crow era.
A Jazzman’s Blues begins with an elderly Black woman walking into an attorney’s office and plunking down a pile of 40 year old letters. She tells him he needs to investigate a 40 year old crime and these letters provide answers. He reads one and is hooked on them. We don’t find out until the last seconds of the story what the letters mean to him, we just know he’s going to read them all.
Flash back to the 1930s. A young couple fall in love. Bayou (Joshua Boone) is 17. Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer) is 16. They meet late at night, sneaking out. Leanne signals Bayou that she’s managed to sneak away by flying a paper airplane through his window.
Bayou’s step father and step brother, Willie Earl (Austin Scott), treat him horribly. They have a small band with Willie Earl on trumpet. Bayou can sing, but they seldom let him. Their father heads to Chicago to play music there. Not long after, Willie Earl follows.
Leanne was abandoned by her mother and lives with an abusive grandfather. When the news that she’s seeing Bayou gets out, her mother shows up suddenly and takes her away.
Bayou’s mother, Hattie Mae (Amirah Vann), opens a juke joint. She’s a terrific singer, just like Bayou.
After a time, Willie Earl shows up back in Georgia with a German immigrant named Ira (Ryan Eggold) as his manager. Willie Earl also brings home a drug addiction which figures importantly in his future. Ira has promised to get Willie Earl booked in a Chicago club. Ira wants Mattie Mae and Bayou to come too, because he recognizes their talent.
Bayou goes. He gets a job singing in the club and becomes better known than his brother. He has a hit record called “Paper Airplanes.” When Bayou realizes his mother needs him, he rushes back to Georgia.
And there he finds Leanne and her mother, both passing for white, with Leanne married to a white man. Bayou and Leanne couldn’t stay away from each other.
A white man could do anything he wanted to a black man – kill him, burn down his house, burn down his mother’s house, whatever he wanted. There would be no consequences for the white man, no punishment.
That’s where the story turns even more tragic than the segregated Jim Crow existence Bayou already lead had been. I don’t want to spoil any more of the story, so I’ll let you discover the ending for yourself.
Tyler Perry both wrote and directed A Jazzman’s Blues. He wrote it years ago and didn’t get it made. Now he has resources, a studio, and the clout to get something like this produced. It’s a beautiful production. Gorgeous cinematography, outstanding music, excellent actors. The acting was subdued. There were none of the broadly overdrawn caricatures Tyler Perry is known for.
The story is stirring and heartbreaking. Joy and pain, love and rage, pride and poverty – all the dichotomies of life under Jim Crow are explored and realized.
Films with mostly Black casts are starting to get traction with general audiences. I hope this Netflix production finds a wide audience, because it’s a beautiful, moving story that needs to be seen by lots of people. You can see the trailer here.