Race is clearly a topic that is on everyone's minds right now, and more than ever are racially charged films making appearances at film festivals. This past weekend I caught a few at the Macon Film Festival, including the excellent documentary Yazoo Revisited: Integration and Segregation in a Deep Southern Town that explored the history of an integrated public school system in a small Mississippi city. Jerico also looks to the past to explore issues of racism and prejudice, but does so in a categorically different way: by using comedy.
Jerico primarily follows two young black men, Jarvis (Anthony Fort) and Jerico (Brandon Lewis, who also wrote the film and plays a few other characters) living in the south around the time that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by LBJ. They share a tragic history in which Jarvis's father fought to get a well deserved promotion, leading to his kid brother being lynched. The two are celebrating the signing of the Civil Rights Act and rushing to get to work, where their sympathetic boss is ready to interview Jarvis for the promotion his father wanted so dearly. Along the way, they save a young boy from a racist mob and end up on the run from them themselves, resorting to some rather silly tactics to escape the very real and very dangerous group.
The most obvious thing about the film is it's unique tone. It takes what could have been a very serious melodrama and turned it into a screwball comedy, complete with the character Jerico donning whiteface and adopting a kindly hillbilly persona in order to help Jarvis escape. It's quite silly, and at times it is very funny. Jerico's hesitance paired with Jarvis's heroic nature make for a familiar and comedic contrast, and there are at least a handful of laugh out loud moments. Director Seckeita Lewis, who was in attendance at the screening, noted that she thinks most movies about the history of African-Americans are tragic and heartbreaking, so much so that the emotionality of them make it difficult to earnestly discuss afterwards; by utilizing comedy, she hopes to "enable conversations about race."
All in all, I'd say she mostly succeeds. While Jerico is not what you'd call a polished film–it often feels like a student film with a moderate budget, complete with some logical and tonal inconsistencies–it is nothing if not very ambitious, especially for a first time director and writer. I suspect we'll see some very interesting and unique work from this husband and wife team in the future, and I hope they continue to explore this tricky-but-appealing niche.