Perry’s canny moves into the Hollywood mainstream via acting roles in newsworthy pictures ranging from “Gone Girl” to “Don’t Look Up” may have expanded the audience for his directorial work. And with his recent deal with Netflix, that directorial work has gone into new territory. His new picture, “A Jazzman’s Blues,” in which Perry does not appear, is from a script he says he wrote 27 years ago. On a recent appearance on “The Today Show,” Perry said, “I had to be strategic in what I was doing before, so I had to make sure I had a hit after a hit after a hit, so this one I just wanted to take my time and do it at the right moment.” Telling this story now, he says, became imperative as Perry witnessed contemporary book banning, distortion of Black history, “the homogenizing of slavery and Jim Crow” being one aspect of that which troubles him particularly.
From its very opening shots “A Jazzman’s Blues” shows that Perry has developed a genuine fluency as a filmmaker. The story’s setup is a frame, something right out of John Grisham maybe: sometime in the not-too-distant past, a Black woman watches a political pitch on television from the current Attorney General of Hopewell, Georgia, disdaining his racist views. Nonetheless, this old woman soon turns up at the man’s office, bearing a sheaf of letters and making a request. “You want me to look into a murder that happened over 40 years ago,” says the bureaucrat in disbelief. (As it happens the woman knows everything but intends the query as a lesson.) We flashback to 1937, and a rural Black community, and a lot of unhappiness.
The sensitive, tentative young man nicknamed Bayou (Joshua Boone) comes from a family of itinerant musicians. Including a father who huffs “Boy got to learn to get tough at some point.” The fact that Boone can sing but can’t play makes him an object of contempt for that father and for Boone’s brother Willie Earl (Austin Scott); with the latter there’s a real Cain and Abel vibe going on. Good fortune smiles on Boone in the form of LeAnne (Solea Pfeiffer), an outcast of a different sort. “I can still smell the lavender and the moonshine,” Boone avers in one of his letters. For a short time the two share a secret love. She teaches him how to read. But she’s snatched away by her avaricious mother who takes her up North and marries the girl, who can pass for white, to a well-off-Caucasian. 1947 brings an unfortuitous reunion of Bayou and LeAnne. “What is wrong with these negroes down here?” asks a member of LeAnne’s new people when Bayou is so forward as to take a seat in a white family’s kitchen. “Oh, we keep ‘em in line,” responds a representative of local law enforcement.