Tyler Perry expressed his excitement over the recent push for diversity in the film and TV business at a Toronto industry keynote on Sunday but added that the drive would only succeed if it were accompanied by education, training and time to gain experience.
The director, who has blazed a trail throughout his career in enlarging the space for black stories and talent on the small and big screen, is at Toronto for the world premiere of his new film A Jazzman’s Blues ahead of its release on Netflix on September 23.
A labor of love for Perry that has been 27 years in the making, the drama stars emerging talents Joshua Boone and Solea Pfeiffer as star-crossed lovers in 1940s Louisiana, whose relationship is thwarted by race laws of the time.
It is among a raft of features at TIFF this year driven by black talent and stories including fiction features The Woman King and The Inspection and documentaries Sidney and Dear Mom among others.
Quizzed on how he viewed this moment in history for black creators, Perry said: “Let me be very careful on how I say this, be diplomatic. I’m extremely excited for what’s happened with diversity and the choices and opportunities that we’re seeing for black people for the first time, it’s amazing.”
“But I worry because there is such a push for diversity and push for hiring people of color that I found situations where there are people being pushed into seats they’re not ready for,” he said.
“At Tyler Perry Studioswe train so many people, we’ve brought people in and they do an amazing job but as soon as people are trained and they know the job, they’re snatched up to go to some bigger production, which is fine because if you want to find people who know their job, if they can make it at my studio they can make it anywhere,” he continued.
“What I don’t want to have is black people in seats that we weren’t ready for, and then have people that are not black that were moved out of seats… If we didn’t get qualifications, the teaching or the education to get there, then how are we given the seats so quickly? It’s my hope that in all of this change and this push for there to be more inclusion, we’re also providing time and training to make sure we can do a great job”
The dramatic tone of A Jazzman’s Blues marks a departure for Perry after a raft of commercial hit comedies and dramas, led by his long-running Madea franchise.
Perry said he felt he had to prove himself in Hollywood before taking the leap into this more artistically ambitious feature because he could not afford “a flop” early on in his career as a black person.
“I knew that if I had a flop, I wouldn’t be able to continue in the business because as a black person, I had many more challenges than my counterparts… I knew that I had to build my brand and build a studio, get to a place where I can stand as solid and say, ‘Okay, now I want to do some things that I wanted to do for a long time,’ he said.
Perry said his partnership with Netflix – on films including A Fall From Grace and Madea A Homecoming – had played a part in convincing him that the time was right for him to bring A Jazzman’s Blues to fruition.
“I had been told for many, many years that movies with black people or black stars would not travel internationally, outside of Will Smith. Doing two movies with Netflix that hit number one in different parts of the world re-affirmed what I already knew, that I had a platform, a place in the world,” he said.
The current political climate in the US had also spurred him on, he continued, alluding to recent cases of US schools being pressured by conservative groups into removing certain books about sexual minorities and racism from their libraries
“So political officials banning books from libraries, wanting to reimagine, not wanting white kids, black kids to learn the history of what black people endured in America, wanting to water it down, wanting to homogenize it. This is shocking to me because what I know for sure is that if you don’t learn your history, you’re destined to repeat it,” he said.
“I thought the timing was right because even if it’s a fictional story, if it sparks curiosity and people want to go and research and look back at some of the things that happened to us as people, our love affairs, and the things we had to do to be okay in the world, then that is a lot of what the movie is about.”