By MIKE McGEE
The Dallas Examiner
With his new feature-length film, Jo and the Reaper, local director M. Legend Brown has expanded his artistic spirit with a crime drama that hits the audience hard while leaving behind the sentimentality of his previous family-and-faith fare. In breaking out of this audience-focused comfort zone, Brown has presented viewers with a more adult, down-to-earth film that examines poverty, sins – both religious and criminal – and the tricky balance between hope and hopelessness.
Filmed primarily in Fort Worth, the movie introduced us to Jolene Key, played by Timeca M. Seretti, who has a long resume of television roles and upcoming films Match Me If You Can and Lincoln Road. Jo is a mostly by-the-book small business owner who lost her home to repossession and is on the verge of being locked out of her seafood shack business.
Julius Gregory, known for his work on the television show Revolution as well as the films Mad Money and the First Lady trilogy, portrayed Jason ‘Reaper’ Tamper, a dangerous, disreputable hustler, the live-in boyfriend of Jo in what is a clear case of “opposites attract.”
The film, mostly told in a flashback over a three-month period, reveals that Jo is homeless because Reaper’s most recent street-level, get-rich-quick scheme fell through, landing them both in a cheap motel with few belongings.
Jo attempts to secure restaurant funds through a small business loan and from her church, but both turn her down, leaving her no way to pay back the debt on the eatery, and therefore no way for her to save the money needed for a house.
Reaper, on the other hand, deals in drugs, gambling, robbery; whatever he needs to do in order to get by. To avoid losing Jo completely – and to avoid the wrath of a drug kingpin who never received his bundles – he offers Jo an opportunity. She can sell food in the front of her restaurant while he runs an illegal dice game in the unused back section, complete with security, a DJ and copious amounts of liquor as amenities.
Jo, doing the best to keep her integrity and safety intact, is horrified by the idea. But little by little, as finances become increasingly dire, Jo slowly warms to the plan, thrilled with the incoming cash and the boost it provides the couple.
Jo and the Reaper may be relatable to viewers since it is shot in several identifiable spots around Fort Worth by local filmmakers, and features a majority Black cast. The film is also relatable in the struggles it depicts onscreen and the emotional attraction of hope that we feel for the characters even as darkness creeps in a little closer each time a victory is won.
Both leads do a fine job in their roles, but Seretti is the true queen of the screen. As a struggling business owner with a strong work ethic but attracted to the wrong man, she maintains a great balance between melodrama and realism. Her humor – a rare thing in this film – warms us, and her sorrow after each rejection or stroke of bad luck frustrates us just as it does Jo.
Gregory, even while playing a low-down hoodlum willing to take others with him into his descent, makes Reaper someone we all hope will finally “get it,” finally turn things around and have the life he wants and that Jo deserves. He plays Reaper as a man who runs warm and cold, a guy with god-like muscle tone who speaks softly and carries a big gun.
In the past the director has depicted in many of his movies the failings of the social safety nets – both governmental and private – depended upon by those in financial, physical or spiritual need, even as they work their “bootstraps” to the best of their abilities.
Brown changes things up in Jo and the Reaper, making it more of a cautionary tale. He explores the misfortunes, tests and evils that we become entangled in through our own decision-making: the people we keep around us, our lack of planning, blind trust, giving too many second chances and making the wrong compromises, or depending only on hopes and dreams but failing to expend the effort to manifest them.
Jo is perhaps the strongest and most righteous character in the film, which makes her fall more painful to watch. She is consistently focused on getting ahead while doing it the right way. She swings easily from negativity to optimism, but it is a desperate optimism; Jo fails to balance her optimism with wisdom. With so much hope and belief in her man she sells off pieces of her integrity, so slowly and in tiny bits, that what appears insignificant here or there is creating a bigger, uglier picture.
Writers Michael D. Brown and Irma Crayton and the cast reveal the uncomfortable truth that whatever ills befall us, using our emotions or our rationality at the wrong time, or when both are out of sync with each other, can certainly make things worse.
This is also what makes the film more true-to-life; a teen getting into crime too deep, a preacher who is significantly less than holy, an incredible double-cross reveal; these events could be, are going on around us, be it in Fort Worth, Houston’s Fourth Ward, southeast Longview, or our own, imperfect lives. The reality around us is difficult to ignore even when presented as electronic fiction on a screen.
Despite Brown pulling double duty as the editor, the film could have been tightened up some. There are some characters – like Reaper’s mother – or side plots – such as the two-on-two basketball game that adds menace but not much else; a police interrogation that seems flat and without purpose – that could have been trimmed or maybe cut completely.
But the film as a whole is a winner, showing us truths as it entertains. The cinematography is some of the best of Brown’s Poorchild Films-produced efforts, with the eye-candy of Fort Worth at night, or the hot, always moving streets in smaller, poorer neighborhoods in daytime. There’s no Hollywood here; Jo and the Reaper is a jagged-edged gem, with drama and realistic characters present. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, which causes us to ponder what the true finish may be, after the story on the screen is done.
Jo and the Reaper is available on the Tubi streaming service free with advertisement breaks. It runs one hour and 37 minutes and carries a TV-MA rating.