The Joneses (2016), an extraordinary documentary set in Rankin County, Mississippi, centers on the lives of seventy-four-year-old transgender matriarch Jheri Jones, her sons, and teenage grandchildren. Director Moby Longinotto follows the Joneses across five challenging years in which they deal with questions of sexuality, religion, family history, and self-discovery. In this edited interview with John Howard, executive producer of The Joneses, Southern Spaces editors Sophia Leonard, Eric Solomon, and Allen Tullos delve into the origins, on-location production decisions and experiences, and the public reception of this compelling, unique project.
Queer Intersections / Southern Spaces is a collection of interdisciplinary, multimedia publications that explore, trouble, and traverse intersections of queer experiences, past, present, and future. From a variety of perspectives, and with an emphasis upon the US South, this series, edited by Eric Solomon, offers critical analysis of LGBTQ+ people, practices, spaces, and places.
Southern Spaces: How did you begin the project that became this remarkable documentary The Joneses?
John Howard: Jheri (at the time Jerry) Jones and I met forty years ago as coworkers—freight clerks and passenger ticket agents at the Greyhound bus station in Jackson, Mississippi. I was a high school senior. Jheri was a recently divorced father of four who was beginning to transition. Despite the fact that we now live four or five thousand miles apart, we have been friends ever since.
The documentary project spun out of my first book, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History, which began as an Emory dissertation, submitted in 1997. I had these really superb advisers: Mary Odem, Catherine Nickerson, and, of course, Allen Tullos was chair of my committee. Martin Duberman was an external member. Thanks to their incredibly helpful interventions, it was possible to turn that dissertation rather quickly into a University of Chicago Press monograph, Men Like That, that came out in 1999. Doug Mitchell was the key editor, a towering figure in queer publishing. After that, various ideas were floated about how to reach a broader public. Several people recommended verbatim theatre. There were some good examples of this. In 2005 University of Alabama Press published a revised edition of Ben Duncan's memoir The Same Language and I really liked playwright Carl Miller's adaptation for Menagerie Theatre Company in Cambridge (UK). Soon there would be the example of E. Patrick Johnson's very important work on black gay men in the South that he was performing as a one-man show. Johnson had experience in performance studies, and he was using his oral history narratives in that way, which I found very compelling.
I was even more interested in the suggestions to turn Men Like That into a documentary film. Around 2007 Ash Kotak, a friend and neighbor in central London, and I began to talk. I teach his 2000 stage play Hijra, which I think of as a queer/trans subaltern romcom. It's an extraordinary work that will be turned into a film. Ash was insistent that this be a character-led project. We had to forefront an individual who could provide queer, trans, and Mississippi history as part of that character's backstory. We considered several people. An early title was The Strange Career of Jon Hinson based upon a US congressman from Mississippi who twice was caught in compromising situations and queer spaces in the D.C. area, and yet was reelected to Congress for his conservative Republican values. Eventually, he was caught again and run out of office. We thought about Aaron Henry, the great leader of the NAACP in Mississippi, but, to be candid, his wife likely would have quashed any such project.
I told Ash about Jheri's SRS, then called sex reassignment surgery, now called gender confirmation surgery. I was the only friend or family member able to be there when she opted to have that procedure in Belgium. Even with the cost of flights and the initial recovery period in a hotel, it was cheaper to do so there than in the United States. Hearing her story, Ash insisted that Jheri had to be at the center of any documentary that spun out of Men Like That.
We made attempts to get initial funding, including the AHRC (the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom). They gave us the nicest, or worst, rejection: essentially, "this is superb; we have a few concerns around the edges. So be sure and reapply, and we'll give you the money." Well, life intervenes. And sadly, in my case, that involved being drafted into the headship of my department at King's College London. So I was not going to be as deeply involved as I had wanted to be, nor would Ash.
We approached Faction Films in London, where Caroline Spry, formerly with Channel 4, helped steer the project to completion. Among other tasks, Ash and I were asked to interview potential directors. It came down to two: an amazing South African, Oscar-nominated director named Murray Nossel, and a very soft-spoken Londoner named Moby Longinotto. Murray and I really got along in our interview, but I didn't like his initial ideas about how we might frame the project. He wanted a journey of discovery. He wanted me to travel back to Mississippi to ask Jheri for advice, which, for reasons that will become apparent, I don't ever do. That struck me as a bit contrived. All this is unfair to Murray, because this was a single interview and it was just an idea he threw out there. So I want to give a clear shout-out to Murray, I would love to work with him! But it was after viewing the films of both Murray and Moby Longinotto, and especially after seeing Moby's film, Small Town Boy, that Ash and I agreed wholeheartedly that Moby was the person for this project. So, he got busy and on a shoestring budget made a quarter-hour short by 2009.
Q: What was it about Small Town Boy that made you think Moby was suited for Jheri's story?
Howard: It's a beautiful, charming documentary about courage in Somerset, a small-town setting. It's about one brave boy and a group of people who put him out there as the alternative carnival queen, in drag. Moby was able to get extraordinary shots: the fifteen-year-old walks down the street and a fifty-year-old man almost assaults him. And there's great patience and quiet, controlled pacing that seems true to village life. Where, as a filmmaker, you go, stay, and get to know someone for an extended period. You wait for things to happen, and they do.
Q: Do you have any insight into the first meeting between Moby and Jheri and her family?
Howard: Moby hit it off with everyone. As was so apparent in his film No Time for Tea at Raj TV, Moby is adept, attentive, and respectful in cross-cultural settings, easily fitting into local patterns and rhythms. The Joneses soon became accustomed to his regular visits, initially on his own, doing the camera work, and over time with slightly larger teams.
Q: What were those visits like? Did Moby live in Mississippi for months at a time and stay with the family? Did he return over a period of years? How embedded was he?
Howard: He'd go initially for shortish visits. As budgets were slightly increased over time, he would go and stay longer. Stories emerged over years. Different plot lines seemed to come about quite naturally. And the family grew more trusting of Moby and the entire endeavor. More could be said and revealed. Early on, Jheri was talking about using a pseudonym, as we had done in Men Like That. That was going to prove impossible. So much happened over the years that they, all of them, came out in new ways.
Q: I'm struck by your comments that you were there with Jheri in Belgium during her gender confirmation surgery. That's not brought up in The Joneses. Do you know more about how that transpired and how she was able to make connections with care providers in Belgium?
Howard: I do. Jheri got online just before the turn of the millennium, asking trans people in various forums how to get the most affordable but safest surgery possible. She had been transitioning since the late seventies, with Dr. Ben Folk at the University Medical Center in Jackson who prescribed hormones. But she knew she was going have to go out of state for the surgical procedure. Increasingly it seemed it would be more affordable to go out of the country. So that's what she did. It was her first time outside the United States, aside from a cruise to Mexico. It was quite a gutsy thing to do. In The Joneses, Jheri explains how she had to save her money over a long period of time and get to Brussels. Because I live in London, I was able to go and spend several days with her, the only friend or family member who could afford it. An amazing moment happened there, and though I've told this story before, it's important to understanding the genesis of the film project.
Right after her procedure, as Jheri had requested, I rang her eighty-six-year-old mother back in Smith County, Mississippi. Reverting to my old southern accent, I said, "Miz Jones? This is John Howard. I'm calling long distance from Brussels, Belgium. I just wanted to let you know that the surgery was a success. Jheri's still unconscious, but doing fine."
"He is?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," I said with emphasis, "she's doing all right."
"Well," she hesitated, "that's good. Please tell her I love her."
That's the story that convinced Ash Kotak that Jheri and her family should be featured. The project held out hope for other reconciliations in fraught familial relationships that went back decades. It also seemed likely to reveal strongly held prejudices, as well as aspects of trans life as yet untold.
For example, around this time, there was a cultural outpouring of stories about sex reassignment surgery. In 2007 Dr. Marci Bowers of Trinidad, Colorado, was getting a lot of attention, and Channel 4 and a US partner made a six-episode series called "Sex Change Hospital" that aired on More4 in the UK and WeTV in the US. Dr. Bowers, by the way, was among the many Jheri consulted by email. It seemed trans media representations at that moment centered on surgery and on good-looking young people. We did not want to do that. We wanted to talk about the distinctive challenges of trans aging, assisted living, end of life care, the Deep South's religious challenges, and LGBT working-class issues more broadly—one of which remains crucially important around the world: employment discrimination.
Q: There are so many determining economic, social, and political pressures in the Joneses situation in Mississippi. How did they understand their economic precarity?
Howard: It's a great question. The documentary can only do so much. The difficulties in Mississippi and the misdeeds and mismanagement of the Mississippi legislature over decades requires a reckoning all its own. But several related things that emerge around structural, systemic oppression of LGBTI people involve intimidation, violence, and employment discrimination. There are scenes in The Joneses where Jheri and her son Trevor reference their experiences of bullying and intimidation in the public schools of Mississippi. Jheri many decades ago; Trevor a couple decades ago. Jheri worries about her grandchildren experiencing bullying if their schoolmates find out they have a trans grandmother.
Trevor was most resistant to the project, not only because of fears of his own coming out as a gay man, but also due to the potential for violent reprisals—worries that I still have around the everyday discrimination and potential violence they face not just in the trailer park, but elsewhere in Mississippi and when they travel. When Jheri tells about her varied job history, it's implicit that after she transitioned, she had to create a whole new job history. What you can't know from The Joneses is that she was hounded out of her job at the Greyhound bus station by some really vicious employees. She was fired from a job at a construction company because management discovered she was trans. She recently told me that she now finally has a job she can't be fired from, because she's a freelance bookkeeper, working mostly for her son Wade, which we do witness onscreen. She still has to work. Retirement is not an option.
To sustain this large family, two members of which are disabled, there's not enough income. There's reference to living at the poverty line. It was very important that the problems of employment discrimination, the precarity of their lives, be central to The Joneses. Much can only be suggested, but it looms over the entire project. This is a poor, working-class family struggling to get by. The nature of the household is forged by economic precarity. Back in 2004, Jheri suggested to Trevor and Brad that it was in their best interest to sell the small house that they had inherited from their mother and move into the trailer with her.
Q: Do you wish that there had been more explicit attention on the structural economic pressures in the documentary? More than is shown through the abandoned storefronts and empty streets of Pearl?
Howard: Yes, to be honest. I was pleased that early on viewers see Jheri preparing for work, and out she goes with her thermos to her car. She's driving to the Salvation Army, where she worked in payroll for a time. If we had tried to film at Salvation Army, she would've been fired. Nonetheless, we do get her narratives of the various kinds of jobs she's held through the years. She doesn't mention chicken farming, and there was other low-wage work that she's unable to speak about. We see Brad working around the home. He does the yardwork. He helps Jheri prepare to cook and cleans up afterward. He walks the pets and does almost all other domestic chores. I wish we could have gotten inside Trevor's workplace, but he works manual labor at a national chain and it seemed very risky.
John Marszalek III's excellent new book Coming Out of the Magnolia Closet shows with great force how employment discrimination informs all aspects of life for lesbian and gay Mississippians. What I've called quiet accommodationism—what his narrators describe as a need for discretion, their refusal to fly the rainbow flag—is borne of the need to keep their jobs and maintain their livelihoods, their tenuous hold on economic security. One narrator after another is fired, suspended, or denied promotion when the boss discovers their sexual orientation.
Q: Equally important in The Joneses are questions of religious belief and practice which the documentary puts into tension and contradiction. From fundamentalist punitive judgment and rejection to joining the inclusive Safe Harbor Jackson congregation. The Joneses are shown joining hands and praying at meals and seem to have adapted Christianity to suit their emotional needs.
Howard: I agree. I think this is one of the The Joneses great successes. I had confidence in Moby's ability to get inside these spaces. They make for some of the most compelling scenes and produce the most important arc in the documentary. We're dealing with a trans matriarch who has four sons, two of whom live with her and one of whom has two children. Jheri grew up in Primitive Baptist traditions, and she is not giving those up. She continues to attend Primitive Baptist churches. Moby manages to get inside one and captures the scene of a well-suited preacher beginning a sermon, stating that "God is love." That sermon rapidly degenerates into condemnations of "sins of the flesh," exhortations against the congregants' "own evil ways." Evil! Moby frames shots in which crocheted blankets are folded over the end of each pew. You get a sense of church ladies' work, their labor in trying to provide cold comfort to these hard pews. But their loving communal labor is in stark contrast to the fierce hellfire-and-brimstone rhetoric from the pulpit.
What we also learn is that Jheri's son Trevor had great trouble coming out as a gay man, even in a trans-headed household. Trevor's biological mother Doris converted to Jehovah's Witness and was rabidly anti-gay. That placed an enormous obstacle in Trevor's reckoning with his own sexuality and identity. In that White Sands Baptist Church cemetery, we have Trevor breaking down, telling his mother at her grave site, I'm gay and I'm not ashamed of it. I know you counseled otherwise, but I must live this way, with honesty. Then, near the end, Trevor and Brad formally join a congregation they had been attending, the LGBTQ+-affirming Safe Harbor Church. Once again, music plays a crucial role. A female pastor inducts them and asks the members of the church to take an oath to support these two new members. There's a powerful hymn, in stark contrast to the Primitive Baptist Church, about love growing and overflowing, with the entire congregation joining hands. It's a much more welcoming and affirming message than those Protestant hymns many of us know so well. Music plays a vital role as these two Joneses are welcomed into this unusual Mississippi church.
Q: Is The Joneses reaching audiences in Mississippi? Do you have a sense that the people who would benefit from this narrative and from having these lives depicted honestly, with the sort of struggles and joy that they have, are accessing the film?
Howard: How can queer youth and LGBTI people of all ages find media representations that feel true to their own experiences? Trevor spends several years in a trans-headed household; even so, it's difficult to come out. He told me that a particular character on a soap opera helped him think things through. The filming also helped him, because it was a process of affirmation and bringing the Jones family closer together.
As for audiences for The Joneses, Jheri was flown to New York and San Francisco for the East and West Coasts premieres; the trio that live in the trailer drove to premieres in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and New Orleans. They were able to participate in the project's dissemination. As of the beginning of 2020, The Joneses has not premiered in Mississippi. It has been shown in Alabama, and most importantly perhaps, it's now available on iTunes, Amazon, and so forth. Hopefully, interviews such as this one will make it more widely known.
As for the struggles of LGBTI youth in Mississippi and the kinds of barriers that trans and non-binary youth are breaking down, it's exciting. People are coming out at younger ages. They're feeling more empowered. There are straight-gay alliances in high schools, though in my hometown the principal actively opposed it, drawing national media scrutiny. Trans youth are doing something heroic and courageous. More power to them. What we thought we could show is how trans elders such as Jheri were the trailblazers.
Q: How were the musical choices made in the documentary? Rarely does it happen that a film crew goes to Mississippi and doesn't replay all the blues clichés. There is a little snippet of blues, but there is also composed acoustic music. And the soundtracks that Jheri has going in the background, and the church music.
Howard: We were paying attention. And while I was reluctant to be too assertive with Moby, it was around music that I was most willing to make suggestions. I would just express to him my worry that we would get the old, hackneyed, twangy blues guitar. The bent notes that are cliché to many of us who see a lot of "Southern" cultural productions. Even in the quarter-hour short in 2009, Moby was paying attention to the ambient music in the household: salsa, classical (at that time on Mississippi Public Radio. No more.), and disco—which is hugely important in Jheri's life and creates moments of affirmation. For me, that musical score is just about perfect. And it begins with composer Joel Pickard's opening number: acoustic guitar with cello underneath when the camera pans over family photo albums and helps viewers understand the chronology they're about to experience. It's extraordinarily powerful. Along with portrait photography and dance, the range of music is a cohesive factor in The Joneses. Interestingly, the one blues track, chosen carefully and used as background when Jheri is describing Mississippi history and the closed society is Tom Dickson's "Labor Blues." I found that an amazing choice, which I had no hand in.
Q: As I was watching The Joneses a second time, I caught myself picking up all sorts of queer cultural cues, especially visually, that are peppered throughout. The rainbow ensemble Jheri wears in her first appearance as she sings "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." A shot of a coffee can tinman sculpture that hangs on a trailer porch recalls the friend of Dorothy and an apocryphal story of the Stonewall Riot origins. A shot of pink flamingos suggests John Waters and Divine. Jheri's dancing and kitchen calisthenics remind me of Little Edie in Grey Gardens. How much was Moby doing deliberately? How do you understand The Joneses in the context of queer cultural history?
Howard: It's highly self-aware and honors various traditions that you've picked up on. It bears multiple viewings. There are more things you can find, not only related to the South but to global capitals' mediation of "Southernness," especially Londoners, especially film and art school types. They know William Eggleston, and you'll notice in the early credits there's a visual citation of him. If not direct citations, there are evocations of photographers Eudora Welty and Zoe Strauss at whom I recommended that Moby take a look in advance of his first trip. And William Christenberry. Moby improves on one of the location stills I was asked to produce early on for promotional purposes, the ubiquitous roadside Golgothas. These are peppered throughout, including lingering as well as fast-paced shots of photo portraits that are on the walls in the Jones home. This works as a way of accessing psychological states and suggesting the back stories for them as individuals and collectively as a family. Moby was able to do so much largely within four walls by virtue of patience and years-long determination to carry the project to completion. He worked his way through the cultural minefield of cliché and hackneyed musical scores and visual representations that we've all worked to undo and deconstruct.
Also hovering over the film, not directly addressed, are the drag cultures that nurtured and sustained Jheri in her earliest days of transitioning. She performed on Jackson drag stages as Lady Gay Chanel in the 1970s and 1980s, specializing in Ethel Merman numbers, and I hope future work, as by the Invisible Histories Project, will have more to say about this. But again, this subject seemed relatively well covered in televisual media, as compared to working-class queer issues, economic struggle, and religious persecution. RuPaul came out of the Atlanta drag scene, and we now have eleven seasons and countless tie-ins and spin-offs that frequently reference distinctive Deep South pageant and performance cultures.
Q: Having dealt with so much across several years, there's an optimism that concludes The Joneses. In terms of the family, what's happened since?
Howard: The family came together, was made stronger, understood themselves better, and were better able to talk with each other. Roughly midway through The Joneses, Trevor tells Jheri, the problem is we never talked. We never talk things through. The production encouraged that and helped make it happen. There are comings out and reconciliations. And this is where the Joneses are now, the year that Jheri celebrated her eightieth birthday. She's still working, working out, and looking for love, arguably in all the wrong places. [Laughter] She's certainly looking for love. But she has to be careful as she discloses to some dates and to new boyfriends. She experiences a lot of rejection, she tells us. At least she no longer faces the "threat of murder," after her surgery.
Brad and Trent are in many ways in the same place physically, sharing that home with Jheri, working in the same jobs, but I think they feel closer to their family members and feel proud of having done this. Trevor's story is most astounding. You'll remember he was the one who was most resistant to being filmed, sending me an all-caps message on Jheri's email account very early in the process: essentially, "GO AWAY. WE DON'T WANT TO PARTICIPATE IN THIS PROJECT."
As we learn in the film, Trevor was forced to drop out of high school to give full-time care to his biological mother Doris, who was in the late stages of morbid obesity, nearing the end of her life. Very recently, Trevor studied for and obtained his GED, and he's considering training as a nurse. He has a boyfriend of two years. Recall that when he spoke on camera as early as 2009 he said he hadn't achieved at his age what he wanted, which left him feeling "worthless" and "inferior." He talked about wanting one person to love and live with. Now, this person is about fifteen miles away, and they spend time in one another's homes.
As for the grandchildren, Nick and Trinity: Because this was a years-long project with countless setbacks, Jheri's grandchildren became teenagers and began to ask questions. You have this extraordinary story of the grandchildren being told that their grandmother—how does Wade put it?—was "technically speaking their grandfather." That trans grandparent coming out to her grandchildren—being helped along with photo albums that visualize her backstory—with their own father, Wade, also explaining is a crucially important part of the story that we never could have imagined when we first began making the documentary.
Nick has been in the Marines stationed in Virginia for the last two years and is considering re-enlistment. He regularly visits with his grandma. Nick coined this term "Grandmapa" in The Joneses that helped him reckon with her life history. Now she is known as his grandma, and they have a wonderful relationship. Trinity is very quiet throughout. Jheri interpreted that as affirmation, but now finds that she has a better relationship with Nick than with Trinity. Trinity graduated from high school and attends the local community college.
Q: In observational documentary you're dealing with who you see and who was around, and there isn't a lot of interracial interaction in The Joneses.
Howard: What you see represents the historic shift from de jure Jim Crow segregation to largely de facto segregation. However, there are positive signs. Pearl, Mississippi, was virtually an all-white town for most of the twentieth century, and when we began the project, the trailer park was almost all white. That changed into a multiracial environment. On one of his afternoon walks with Moby, where over time he reckons with his grandmother and is engaged in a kind of moral reflection, Nick references his "homies," his friends of color within the trailer park. Yet, viewers only get glimpses outside the walls of the mobile home.
The first worker seen in the film, other than one of the Joneses, is a black carpenter. Followed by a white mechanic, then the voice of a female African American caregiver at Trent's assisted living facility: "Where the hug at? Where's the hug at?" This becomes a trope from the opening title photo, taken probably twenty years ago, to the final stills, shot specifically for the project. Institutionalized for much of his life, Trent doesn't quite know how to hug. He doesn't know what to do with his arms when he's photographed. And that gesture for me is one of the most compelling, complicated reckonings with the difficulties of disability and care facilities, and how those phenomena are racialized and disproportionately visited on working-class people.
Perhaps most importantly, the one biracial, if not multiracial, gathering we see in The Joneses is the LGBTQ+-affirming congregation of Safe Harbor Church.
Q: Considering the different paths that brought filmmakers and viewers into this one home, what do you think Jheri hopes for The Joneses to accomplish? And how do you as the producer and Moby as the director perceive it doing activist work? It's so local, specific, and intimate, yet should have resonance far and wide.
Howard: Your question challenges us to think through explicitly activist productions with precise political aims compared with quieter, subtler films that begin as a day in the life and proceed to five plus years in the life. The Joneses resonates with different audiences. The Joneses short went to Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Canada, and Europe. Think about the captioning and the translation that happened, the recirculation of queer ideas and vocabularies. How does this very particular, very queer household in central Mississippi resonate with diverse audiences in other rural or small-town locales? I think the work of Mary Gray is very good on this, her book Out in the Country. Even the most transphobic early cultural productions on cable television can be reworked by latter-day trans-viewers to provide basic information and affirming representations. Jheri has been very explicit: I want to spread the word about trans-knowledge and trans-empowerment.
A group I briefly mentioned above is the Invisible Histories Project. They're an increasingly better funded network for generating new oral history narratives about LBGTI people in the South, as well as archival collecting and preservation. Something Invisible Histories wants to do that we weren't able to develop in The Joneses is explore Jheri's time as a drag performer in the 1970s in gay bars in Jackson, as part of that vital queer bar infrastructure largely made possible by owner-operator Jack Myers. By the way, Malcolm Ingram's stunning 2006 documentary Small Town Gay Bar, set in Mississippi, is an exemplary feature, in this regard.
Invisible Histories also wants to safeguard the Jones family photo albums in climate-controlled archives so that primary documents of Jheri and her family members, letters, diaries, and the traditional stuff of academic historical writing can be maintained long-term. As well as the play script Jheri has written! This is a complex project around institutions historically hostile to LGBTI people. During one of my latest trips to the University of Mississippi, someone pointed out that there were raids on LGBT students, specifically on gay male students, having sex in various places on the campus as recently as the 1980s. So how to convince LGBTI individuals to part with their keepsakes, documents, artifacts and entrust them to institutions in states that until very recently had sodomy laws and continue to have discriminatory employment practices and "religious" exemption clauses based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That's going to require some painstaking work liaising between LBGTI individuals and groups and state universities, repositories, and museums, that are increasingly eager to collect this material. Notions of how and what we archive will have to change. The work involved in negotiating these relationships is fraught, but worth the effort.
Some of The Joneses' most important work suggests ways in which we can challenge well entrenched heteronormative, and now homonormative, constructs. How to think about family and flexible kinship networks in richer ways? At one point, Brad describes a dream he had. He's married; they have a child; and that child does not have the cognitive disabilities Brad does. He's also talking about something as seemingly mundane as teeth. You know, what if that child had "perfect teeth"? And for me, this is one of the subtle but, again, very important moments where you see the cruel juxtapositions of living in the poorest state in the richest nation on earth. Right? So you have these outsized consumerist expectations that are delivered to you via mass media. But then you have the hard realities on the ground that most people here cannot afford dentistry much less orthodontics. That was so powerful for me. Because I've known farm people, certainly of my mother's generation, who talk about the resentment they felt because their parents couldn't afford to get their teeth fixed and therefore they could not have that "winning smile." Again, a seemingly mundane phrase, but a phrase that speaks so much about American culture. You know, one must perpetually perform some aspect of American success ideology—whether it's a coming out narrative, a recovery testimony, or a religious conversion experience—and do so beautifully, working on one's attractiveness, which too is referenced in the workout routines in the film, the frequent trips to the gym, the way that one must not only be healthy but be attractive according to normative beauty standards. Brad speaks something quite profound in those moments.
I would have liked to have been consulted on the captions, because I think we missed some really interesting turns of phrase. Jerry uses the old temperance phrase "teetotal," which just gets transcribed as "total." An opportunity is missed in a word or a phrase. But on the whole, I'm astounded that the project was completed. I'm astounded that it's widely available. And all in all, I'm so proud of what Moby especially achieved with Ash, Caroline and, obviously foremost, the Joneses.
What finally are the documentary's activist impulses and key contributions? They concern endurance, perseverance, resilience, and hope. When you face elevated risks of bullying—a weasel word that really means verbal intimidation, sustained harassment, and physical assaults—when you are daily confronted with increased risk of violence, when as a trans person you're much more likely to be murdered, and yet you endure. You live, survive, even thrive, despite poverty, into your eighties. Each day in the life is an enormous victory.
Another narrative that ended up on the cutting room floor: In the vacant lot directly across from the family's trailer, a young gay neighbor, no doubt harassed by locals, took a gun and killed himself. As I watch The Joneses, this looms with ominous force, as Nick takes those reflective afternoon strolls, as Brad walks the dog. It's an unspoken haunting.
Given all those intense pressures and threats, given the violence of homophobia and transphobia, given the much higher suicide rates for LGBT people, maybe, just maybe, when young viewers witness Jheri, Trevor, and Brad persevering in Mississippi, they will decide that they too can persevere. In this way, the Joneses give hope and inspiration, the crucial prerequisites of any activist endeavor.
About the Interviewers and Interviewee
John Howard is Emeritus Professor of Arts and Humanities, King's College London.
Allen Tullos is the senior editor of Southern Spaces, co-director of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, and a professor in the Department of History at Emory University.
Eric Solomon earned his doctorate in English from Emory University and is a visiting assistant professor of English and American Studies at Oxford College, Emory University. His work is featured in Southern Spaces, south, PopMatters, and Mississippi Quarterly.
Sophia Leonard is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Emory University.
Howard, John. "Me and Mrs. Jones: Screening Working-Class Trans-formations of Southern Family Values." In Creating and Consuming the American South, edited by Martyn Bone, Brian Ward, and William A. Link, 289–308. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015.
———. Men Like That: A Southern Queer History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
———. "The Joneses: Portraits and Location Stills." Southern Quarterly 52, no. 4 (2015): 155–164.
Kotak, Ash. Hijra. London: Oberon Books, 2000.
Invisible Histories Project. IHP Partners, The University of Alabama, The University of Mississippi, and University of West Georgia. Accessed July 15, 2019. https://invisiblehistory.org.
Jones, Jheri. "Interview with Jheri Jones: The Joneses 2016." By Sarah Courville. Studio A. WKCR. December 4, 2016. https://www.cc-seas.columbia.edu/wkcr/audio/interview-jheri-jones-joneses-2016.
"The Joneses." Bunny Lake Films LLC. Accessed February 5, 2020. http://www.thejonesesdoc.com/.
Naughton, Jake. "A Visual Record of the Joys, Fears and Hopes of Older Transgender People." The New York Times. August 20, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/20/lens/older-transgender-people.html.
Smith, Zachary Oren. "Queer love and struggle in Jackson, Mississippi." Scalawag. April 15, 2019. https://www.scalawagmagazine.org/2019/04/queer-love-and-struggle-in-jackson-mississippi.