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Tyler Perry talks new film 'A Jazzman's Blues'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, studio mogul, philanthropist - It's hard to keep track of every one of Tyler Perry's hats. But with his latest film, he's put on a new one - reclaimer of a lost love. The love in question is a screenplay he wrote more than two decades ago. He says it was actually his very first, but he put it aside because he didn't have the skills or, frankly, the wherewithal to get it made until now, after more than a billion dollars in ticket sales to his previous films and building his own 330-acre studio. The film is called "A Jazzman's Blues," and it's the story of two kindred spirits who love each other but are kept apart by race, class, colorism and the general oppressiveness of the apartheid south. And Tyler Perry is with us now to tell us more about this passion project.

Well, hello, Tyler Perry. Welcome back to NPR.

TYLER PERRY: Yeah. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

MARTIN: So you've talked about meeting the late playwright August Wilson, you know, one of America's greatest. This was in the late 1990s when you were so broke, you actually had to sneak into the theater. And you said that it was his encouragement that led you to write the script. If you don't mind my asking, do you remember, like, what he said to you that made this screenplay just kind of pour out of you as you described it?

PERRY: Not word for word. It was a very short meeting. But what I do remember taking away from it was just the encouragement to write whatever is in my heart, because I remember talking to him about my first show I "Know I've Been Changed" and it wasn't going very well and how it was being met with people calling it chitlin circuit. And, you know, every time I would try to get it out there, I would be met with those kinds of comments. And he was very encouraging, even explaining what chitlin circuit meant and the circuit and how important it was to the survival of Black artists at the time. So I walked away with a very new opinion of the work that I was working on, as well as my heart opened to write something totally different. And thus "Jazzman" was born.

MARTIN: So the film is a love story, as I said, between two kindred spirits, a boy from Georgia named Bayou whose dad frankly seems to hate him, and a girl named Leanne and I don't - How much can I say about this? I don't want to give it away. How would you describe her?

PERRY: Well, she's a very young girl at the time that they meet - they're both 16 or 17 years old - and at a time when there were so many forces that were trying to keep their love apart. They managed to keep finding each other. They kept finding each other no matter what was going on. But Leanne is in the movie - I think it's OK to say this - that her mother wants to use her to pass for white to better their lives.

MARTIN: So through their love story, your script touches on a number of subjects like passing - right? - that you just mentioned, like colorism, and just the general sort of - I don't know - atmosphere of oppression that so many people had to kind of fight their way through. Are there kind of conversations you're hoping that people will have about these issues? I mean, I guess I'm wondering is - because you're at a point in your life now where you can do pretty much whatever you want. And you obviously have your reasons for wanting to bring this film forward now. Obviously, as an artist, like, I just - I know this - as an artist, you want the art to speak for itself. But are there some conversations that you're hoping that people will have around these issues?

PERRY: You're completely right about the art speaking for itself. But I tell you why I thought the timing was right as I'm looking at certain political figures trying to water down and homogenize the history of Black people in America and re-imagine it as if it was something that was glorious and wonderful - and the even the time of Jim Crow, flowering glowering it up, if I could say. But for me, I wanted to tell the story now, even though it's fictional, but it touches on some very important things that have happened in our society. And I want to open that conversation, especially at the end of the movie, something happens. And what I'll say to that is you may think you know your identity, but if you peel back a few layers, there are some things in our past that define us all in a different way than the way we see ourselves.

MARTIN: You know, you've said "A Jazzman's Blues" isn't what some people might expect out of a, quote-unquote, "Tyler Perry movie." I mean, a lot of people associate you with broad comedy. But your movies have always dealt with heavy themes, also - right? - a lot of interracial themes and intra-family traumas. And one of the ongoing themes of your films is that if you don't try to heal, you pass on the wounds. Right?

PERRY: Yeah, I'm glad you picked that up in it. That's great. Yeah.

MARTIN: So tell me about that. Is there something you're healing yourself with this? Is there - you know, I kind of get the feeling that you felt like you had something to prove. And I'm just having a hard time seeing that - I don't think Tyler Perry has anything to prove. Do you think you have something to prove?

PERRY: No, not at this point in my life. But I knew that I was holding on to this movie all these years. And I knew that there was another level that one day I would get a chance to express in my art. And it feels good to be able to do that. To speak to the healing and do I feel healed? Absolutely. The first 10 movies that I wrote were subconsciously about my mother. I didn't even know that I was working it out on the screen or, you know, in the scripts. And in the sense of this movie having that same sensibility of what you were talking about, that all makes sense to me.

MARTIN: You know, the Jesuits have a motto - a man for others - especially Jesuit educators, that they are training people to be a man and a woman for others. One thing that interests me about you is that you seem to always carry a sense of being a man for others. And the question is, who gets to define what your responsibility is? I mean, as we've discussed, you know, people who've criticized your work have done so on the grounds that it - they think it perpetuates harmful stereotypes. On the other hand, you have always made it clear you feel a responsibility to keep people employed, to give people opportunities. And frankly, I don't - you know, I know that you like to keep your private acts of philanthropy private, but it's become known how many people you have quietly helped, you know, to keep them basically physically safe and some people financially afloat, particularly in their later years. So I just wonder, at what point as an artist do you make something just for yourself or is that just not your priority? You see what I'm asking? Is being a man for others your mission always or what is it?

PERRY: But I really feel that "Jazzman" was that, I mean, being the first thing that I wrote in the sense of a movie. I really feel that it is me doing something for myself in a time when I wanted to do it for myself, but also help as many people that are willing to work and thrive to get to better places. So I do feel that. But "Jazzman" was certainly a labor of love for me and something that I did for myself.

MARTIN: That is actor, writer and director Tyler Perry. His latest film, "A Jazzman's Blues," premiered on Netflix on September 23. Tyler Perry, thank you so much for talking with us.

PERRY: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.