You may know him best as the creator of the no-nonsense matriarch Madea, the director and writer of several films and TV series that bear his name and a billionaire film studio founder.
But now, Tyler Perry wants to reintroduce himself to audiences with a historical drama he’s waited nearly 30 years to make.
The multihyphenate Perry discussed the decades-long road to the release of “A Jazzman’s Blues,” a Netflix drama that weaves a murder mystery and love story into a larger tale about racism in the Deep South in the 20th century. He appeared on an episode of the inaugural season of “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace,” a new CNN and HBO Max series. (CNN and HBO Max share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)
“I’ve been very intentional in my positioning of myself in as far as in the industry,” Perry told Wallace. “I knew my audience would support me and the Madeas and ‘Why Did I Get Married?’ and all of the big broader comedies. But this I held on (to) so long because I was waiting for the right time.”
The experience of crafting “A Jazzman’s Blues,” which he wrote and directed, was unique from his other projects, which he said “always felt like work.” This film, which stars rising stars Joshua Boone and Solea Pfeiffer, “was just love,” he said.
“Every element, everything you touched, from the sets to the trees to the location – it all spoke to me,” he said. “And it was more than what I ever imagined when I wrote it 27 years ago.”
The project is deeply personal to Perry, touching on colorism rooted in his own experiences.
“When I started writing Bayou’s character, played by Joshua Boone, his father despised him [and it] kind of took me to my own father and and some of the problems that my father had with me is because I was a brown child. His favorite child was they very fair child. My father grew up in the Jim Crow south and they do it a whole lot of things. So there was this mentality of the lighter your skin, the better you were and that lived on and still lives on today.”
While “A Jazzman’s Blues” may be especially close to Perry’s heart, he remains proud, he said, of his films like the uproarious “Madea” series and dramedies like “Why Did I Get Married?” Despite the often negative reviews and backlash from fellow Black filmmakers like Spike Lee, Perry said he believes they can reflect the experiences of his “target” audience – specifically, Black viewers – and the Black women in his life, like his mother and aunt.
“For me, I love the movies that I’ve done because they are the people that I grew up with, that I represent,” he said. “What is important to me is that I’m honoring the people that came up and taught and made me who I am.”
Though he’s proud of Madea, Perry has trouble viewing clips of himself in Madea drag. He winced when Wallace shared footage from past Madea-starring films. (Wallace, for his part, said that “Madea’s Family Reunion” was “brilliant.”) Perry said he’s “always been extremely uncomfortable” in the fat suit he wears to play her, but as the character’s game rose, so did audience demand for more Madea.
“The audience won’t let her go,” he said. “Even the last time I did it, I said ‘I’m out, I’m not doing it anymore.’ And then the world goes upside down and we have a new president. So I wanted to make people laugh … But the minute people stop coming to see her, that old broad is dead. She’s dead, for sure.”
But Madea’s popularity endures. She’s appeared in 11 films since 2005, including this year’s “A Madea Homecoming,” and several of Perry’s plays. And she’s got famous fans, per Perry: the late Rep. John Lewis, Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks all enjoyed jokes Madea made at their expense, he told Wallace.
Perry relented when Wallace asked him about Madea’s future: “My mother told me keep Madea around before she died,” he said. “So as long as people want to see it, (Madea) will be around.”