New film ‘Jerico’ follows the life of two men as they navigate the hells of the Jim Crow era in rural Mississippi. Set in a comedic tone, the film satirizes American history to broach the conversation between racial lines.
HB spoke to director and writer duo (who are also husband and wife), Seckeita Lewis and Brandon Lewis, about what inspired the movie, and what they want audiences to take away from the story:
HB: Where did the idea for the premise of the film come about?
Brandon: Jerico started as short film about one of my characters, a white middle-aged Country Cowboy, Dale Stevens. At about 20 pages in, we developed the backstory for the character that set us in the 1960s with an idea of a Black man miraculously turning into an elaborate character to save he and his best friend’s life from a racist mob. That is when it hit us. This was the story we wanted to tell. We knew in that time period and those circumstances, Jerico could stand for something and be a lesson for audiences. So, I developed the script with satire to push the limits and purposely leave audiences uncomfortable about just how ugly that history can be.
HB: You’re taking on a very heavy topic with the Jim Crow south, but injecting comedy into it. How do you find the balance between humorous and remaining respectful of a very real moment in history?
Seckeita: It was a delicate balance that we took very seriously in creating the film. The horrific history of Jim Crow and race relations in America has to be taught and needs to be consistently discussed across races. Humor is the best way to bring people to the table. So in the film you will find that there are scenes that are very hard to watch and as you deal with the emotions of the situation, the film gives you a moment of relief through the humor of the main character, Jerico. He uses his wit and comedic timing in an attempt to survive an extremely unrelenting Jim Crow south. Jerico does not make light of the issue at hand, but rather helps the viewer’s ability to take in such a harsh subject matter. We want the film to breed hope through survival and living fully, even through seemingly impossible times.
HB: The film’s themes are very timely for right now as well – were you inspired by the current headlines?
Seckeita: Definitely, the shooting and resulting event in Ferguson were happening as we were in pre-production. The public outcry for criminal and social justice made us want to do something and use Jerico to do it. The events of today stem from the events of yesterday. The fear and hatred rooted so long ago will continue to rear its ugly head again and again until we can move people to the point of facing that history. Jerico’s mission and purpose is to bring this nation together through comedy. The thought is, if we can laugh, maybe we can talk and if we can talk maybe we can heal.
HB: You’ve already won 13 festival awards, did you expect to have such incredible critical reception?
Brandon and Seckeita: It hit us completely by surprise. When creating the film, we always felt we had something special, but seeing audiences react to it in such a positive way has been an incredible affirmation for the mission of the film and for us as first-time filmmakers. Every screening has led to open sharing of personal stories of racial intolerance, from people who lived through the era of the film which has been incredibly humbling. They have been grateful for the humor injected and how we deal with the subject matter. Hearing their stories out loud and dealing with their emotional impact is how we get to healing.
HB: You are working with a cast of both legends and newcomers, what was the most surprising/rewarding aspect of that?
Seckeita: It was surreal to work with such legends of the business. Hearing Ms. Irma P Hall read our lines at the table read gave me goose bumps. This is Big Mamma sitting right here! What was surprising was just how down-to-earth and amazing all of our cast were. I think I really realized how blessed I was when, towards the end of the first week of shooting, we were almost rained out. As I was watching the rainfall during a pivotal outdoor scene, I put on a brave face and went to check on everyone.
Mrs. JoMarie Payton said to me, “Baby we just praying for this rain to stop and for you to get this last shot.” Guess what? It stopped. Just long enough for us to get the final pivotal scene the last day that we had all of the stars scheduled to be on set. Talk about Jesus!
George Wallace spent additional time with our new comers, dropping knowledge and all were incredibly supportive and still are for the film’s success.
How did the Piney Wood School help you in your journey as filmmakers?
Brandon: I am a 1996 graduate of the historic institution and it was there that I would develop a flare for creative writing under the tutelage of a very special professor in Dr. Vivian Napier. I couldn’t have written Jerico had it not been for her bringing out the best in me and for the principles instilled in me by the Piney Woods School. Several alumni from the school lent their talents and financial resources to the making of the film. The Piney Woods School has been instrumental in the making of Jerico, as they opened their campus to us to allow for the filming of a scene in their historic Rock Garden. It is a scene that every student of the school can resonate with due to the iconic location. We were so proud to be able to capture a glimpse of it. The Piney Woods School was founded in 1909 by Laurence C. Jones as a safe haven and educational institution for the children of former slaves. Today it is still operating and educating our African American youth. 99 percent of its students graduate and go on to college.
HB: What is the biggest challenge of working with your spouse? The best part?
Brandon: I would say the biggest challenge was in the filming of a very sexy scene involving Numa Perrier. I was uncomfortable having Seckeita in the same room with me directing the scene. I was more nervous about what she was thinking as my wife and not the director. It was hard to separate the two and because of that, I was unsure if I could get into character. Even now that the film is long finished, that scene remains uncomfortable to view in her presence. When you see the film, you’ll know exactly the scene I am talking about.