Jharrel Jerome’s meteoric advent in the film industry has been auspicious since day one. We only need to look to his breakthrough performance in the incandescent Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight to realize he exudes an expressly profound cinematic presence.
This may be an obvious remark, especially when Jerome simply has such a wonderful canvas to work on within Barry Jenkins’ culturally significant film world. However, as we dive deeper into the actor’s burgeoning oeuvre for this week’s Filmographies, it becomes increasingly apparent that Hollywood should keep putting faith in this rising star.
Dissecting Jharrel Jerome’s resume from the very beginning should include covering the short film Wheels and his own music video Her Coloring Book, both of which preclude Moonlight and merely hint at Jerome’s onscreen potential. I will say that the former, an Ithaca College class film, is generally a better indicator of what’s to come in his career.
Wheels is a six-minute project centering on a boy who is paralyzed from the waist down after a rash split-second decision to get a ride home from a party from a drunk friend. Operating in an exaggerated surrealistic narrative space, the short is peppered with close-ups on Jerome as his lead character deals with a myriad of mixed feelings about the accident.
However, while this over-the-top technique certainly maximizes the film’s visual impact, it doesn’t always effectively capture the nuance lying behind the narrative’s well-meaning message. Nor does it showcase enough of the subtler elements of Jerome’s technique that he would ultimately be praised for.
What Jharrel Jerome goes on to accomplish in Moonlight is nothing short of spellbinding. The raw, intricate triptych traverses complicated negotiations of sexuality to both devastating and glorious results. Portraying the teen version of Kevin – the love interest of the movie’s protagonist, Chiron – Jerome approaches the material with notable finesse, believably unraveling his character’s persistent struggles to reconcile the chaos of both his inner and outer worlds.
Ostensibly the “tough guy” among the two friends, Kevin’s brusque exterior often betrays itself – expertly so, on Jerome’s part – by the smallest expressions of diffidence and uncertainty. Both Kevin and Chiron keep their desires close to their chests. The beauty of Jerome’s performance is just how intuitive it is to the sparking tension between them. He isn’t on screen a whole lot but intelligently infuses Kevin with little mannerisms and impulses that are fascinating to pick up on.
Immediately, the audience is privy to the fact that this is a boy who lives on the cusp of anxiety and assurance about his place in the world, and who longs to express love fully and freely despite the safety of the status quo, without him having to utter a word. Jerome is absolutely mercurial and memorable when depicting Kevin’s many contradictions and complexities.
Hitting a milestone like Moonlight so early on in one’s career feels incomparable. However, Jharrel Jerome has still been fortuitous in landing acting vehicles across a variety of genres that each put his skills to the test. His first significant role on television came in the guise of a Stephen King adaptation.
The now-defunct Audience Network brought the famed horror author’s Bill Hodges trilogy to life in three seasons of Mr. Mercedes. And although the series understandably prioritizes a perpetual cat-and-mouse game between dichotomous leads Brendan Gleeson and Harry Treadaway, Jerome actually winds up being one of the narrative’s most discernible redeeming qualities.
The very essence of Mr. Mercedes is violent and bizarre. The show’s central plot follows Hodges (Gleeson), a dogged retired police detective, who remains haunted by his last remaining unsolved case: a horrific mass murder that occurred at the hands of the series’ eponymous baddie years prior. Mr. Mercedes heavily emphasizes physical and mental trauma as it connects virtually all of its characters to this ghastly crime, dipping into unnerving psychological territory in the process.
Honestly, the show can be considered a technical and artistic achievement, particularly because of its ferociously brilliant ensemble cast. Unfortunately, its reliance on shock value antics makes it particularly difficult to watch. I would have abandoned it if not for Jerome’s comparatively wholesome turn as Hodges’ neighbor, a teenager who’s conveniently named Jerome, too – although the fictional kid’s last name happens to be Robinson.
A highly gifted boy who is well-versed in computer systems, Robinson and Hodges initially meet when the boy begins doing the cantankerous detective’s chores. Eventually, Robinson graduates from mowing lawns to tackling viruses on Hodges’ laptop, becoming an integral part of the latter’s investigative team.
At first glance, Robinson ticks all the boxes of a likable sidekick. He is a genial, funny, and self-assured young man whose immense smarts have secured him a bright future at Harvard University. Jerome drips with confident nonchalance and occasional cockiness when he embodies this part of the character. He delivers levity wherever necessary without devolving into caricature.
Jerome gets to sink his teeth into some trademark Kingian angst as well. At least, he does so only to an extent, which is a darn shame. Despite Robinson exemplifying a vital reminder of heartfulness within such a dark and depressing series, he undergoes a coming-of-age arc that unearths his inner demons. He finds himself tugged towards different life paths depending on his own goals and ambitions, and those of his family and friends (Hodges included). As a character, Robinson is obviously brimming with narrative possibilities, so it is extra disappointing that Mr. Mercedes never really makes enough room for him.
Jharrel Jerome’s subsequent appearances in film continue to stretch his skills as a reliable supporting cast member in compelling interpersonal stories. He features in Anthony Mandler’s drama All Rise, connecting him to another Filmographies alum, John David Washington. Mandler’s film, which depicts a Black American honors student whose life is thrown into disarray when he is charged with felony murder, premiered at Sundance in 2018 and received a very limited release in the US the following year.
Jerome’s next 2018 film, First Match, examines the numerous fluctuating difficulties of teenhood through the lens of the sports drama. Olivia Newman’s impressive feature film debut – based on her short film of the same name – combines the comfort of the underdog flick with a marked throughline of problematic domestic dynamics. Conflicting though that may be, the movie decisively empowers its young female lead Mo (a stunning Elvire Emanuelle).
First Match’s protagonist, who has been shuffled between foster homes since she was a child, longs to build a relationship with her absent father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Mo spots a chance to bond with him after several erratic situations in her personal life lead her to join her school’s wrestling team. She then asks her dad – a former sensation in the ring – to train her.
Jerome enters the picture as Mo’s best friend Omari, a generally happy-go-lucky kid who has seemingly never had to worry about missing familial ties in his entire life. Regardless, Omari cares deeply about Mo and is willing to do virtually anything to keep her afloat. He happens to be the sole constant in Mo’s life.
Jerome represents that kind of anchor impeccably. Not only is he naturally sweet, charming, and witty, but his perceptiveness informs a large part of the film’s moral compass. By way of shots of Jerome’s inquisitive and eager gaze, the impact of Mo’s actions becomes palpable. Sure enough, Omari’s intense sincerity devolves into self-righteousness at times, but Jerome illustrates this with just as much potency, portraying jealousy and spitefulness with utmost conviction.
Regardless, Omari remains extraordinarily cognizant of the many opposing forces in Mo’s life throughout the film. The character facilitates a kind of found family for her, which is made all the more apparent through Jerome’s warm, spontaneous goodness.
Selah and the Spades
In contrast, Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades comes across as a fantastic experiment for the actor. It is undoubtedly the most unusual, irreverent film that he’s made. The off-beat, immaculately-framed teen drama gives Jharrel Jerome the opportunity to immerse himself in a more antagonistic role.
Selah and the Spades can’t exactly be read in conventionally didactic ways. Propelled by salacious, immoral antics and snarky quotable witticisms, it is deliberately cacophonous and detached to enhance the subjective strangeness of its narrative. The film is set in a prestigious fictional boarding school where students divide themselves into five factions of mischief-makers. Each cluster has its respective leader and designated role in the microcosm of campus life. The movie’s namesake, Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), is the head of the Spades, a group specializing in dealing drugs on school grounds.
Jerome fills the shoes of the impulsive Maxxie, Selah’s right-hand man who enforces the Spades’ strict rules of engagement to keep their illicit enterprise afloat. But when Selah is finally due to graduate without having yet appointed her successor, her legacy gets called into question. Simultaneously, tensions in her home life threaten her prudently curated façade of control, pushing her towards treacherous tactics to maintain power.
Almost everyone in Selah and the Spades appears to be an asshole at one point or another. In particular, Maxxie sneaks around and fosters feelings of distrust when he puts the reputation of the Spades at risk for self-serving ends. The character also divulges his particularly spiteful and vindictive side during a verbal stand-off against a schoolmate he sees as a potential rival.
This sort of arrogance, which borders on chilling malice, is largely untapped territory for Jerome. Any hubris that the actor reasonably displays in previous projects becomes jarringly apparent in Selah and the Spades. Yet, although Jerome leans into Maxxie’s selfish side, this isn’t a flat performance by far. He navigates the spoils of adolescence imperfectly but, ultimately, understandably.
When They See Us
Ava DuVernay’s transcendent miniseries When They See Us puts Jharrel Jerome on the map in a big way. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, nimbly portraying the wrongful arrest, trial, and conviction of the Central Park Five. Moreover, the series is unapologetically dedicated to sensitively and poignantly retelling the emotional turmoil that these boys – aged between 14 and 16 at the time of their initial incarceration – experienced at the hands of a prejudiced legal system.
In depicting Korey Wise, the oldest of the Central Park Five and the only one of the group to spend the entirety of his jail sentence in adult facilities, Jerome is an actor transformed. Everything recognizable about the rowdier characters of his résumé melts away as he switches up his gait, movements, and speech tone and cadence for the role.
At the outset, viewers are intentionally shielded from the harsh realities of Korey’s physical and psychological suffering within the prison system. Instead, we’re meant to focus on his inherent gentleness, loyalty, and sheer virtue. This all leaps from the screen in every moment Jerome is wide-eyed, confused, terrified, and struggling to speak, imploring an entire country to believe him. His slight frame and the sheer fact of his youth alienate him from the rest of the prison cohort immediately.
Being privy to the true extent of Korey’s life behind bars can only be described as heartbreaking. As he experiences abuse from inmates and guards, his desperate attempts to move to a prison closer to his family – all so his mother can visit him more often – are frequently thwarted. Eventually, choosing to spend most of his days in solitary keeps Korey alive, but it is to the detriment of his mental health.
Yet, despite this being a deeply isolating role, for the most part, Jerome proves that he can be stirring and magnificent to watch when left to his own devices. There is no distracting showiness, either. Rather, Jerome commands the screen by picking his character apart layer by layer in these quieter moments, recreating gaping wounds and owning them proudly. His historic win at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards is more than well-deserved.
I resist labeling Jharrel Jerome as someone wise beyond his years (no pun intended), even when his talents already outweigh many others in the few short years he’s been in Hollywood. He demonstrates dedication, discipline, and empathy – something that directors like Jenkins and DuVernay have lauded him for – but there is a distinct sense of fearless candor in every role of his that’s fresh and impulsive.
This gut-wrenching, spine-tingling realness is precisely what makes him such a stellar performer. Jerome’s next endeavors (at the time of writing) seem primed to keep honing other aspects of his craft, too. Soon enough, he will join the likes of Idris Elba in a story about urban cowboys. Boots Riley will open doors for him to experience a wider breadth of artistic expression as well. Needless to say, Jerome deserves to stand beneath the spotlight for many years to come.