“When I told my parents that I was going to become an actor,” “Paradise Lost” star John Marshall Jones recalls, “They had all of their out of work actor friends call me and tell me how difficult it was.” Still Jones, who has appeared in numerous television shows and movies, including the beloved Disney Channel sitcom “Smart Guy,” was determined to make his dream come true. He says, “When someone told me that ninety percent of actors can’t make a living, all I thought was, I have to be in the top ten percent.”
Ironically it was the spirit of persistence Jones’ parents had instilled in him that made him so resolute. Jones watched his father go to night school for twenty years to get his high school and college diploma. The Detroit native’s father also put Jones’ mother through college and graduate school.
Now appearing on Paramount Network’s exciting new southern gothic drama, “Paradise Lost,” he plays a former firefighter, “In a very corrupt southern town.” He explains, “I play Ronnie Pearson. When we start the series, he’s been in jail for 15 years for a crime that he swears he didn’t commit.”
Like other southern gothic shows and films with diverse casts such as “Rectify,” and the film classic “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the main Black male character is caught up in the justice system. About this narrative trope, Jones stated “Whenever you’re dealing with the historical stuff in the south, you have the inequity of how Black people have been dealt with in the criminal justice system. It is both historical and institutional, and lends itself to drama.”
The role was personal for Jones. The son of a “very dear friend” of his, was put in jail for a murder he did not commit. “Rather than fully investigating what was going on,” he explains, “they put this young man in jail pending a trial.” Jones and others frantically raised funds and lobbied for a proper investigation. “They finally admitted that he didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Jones believes the next step is having people behind the camera be the same as those the stories depicted in front of the lens. “I look forward,” he said, “to when we can tell stories about the American South that don’t necessarily have to do with injustice perpetrated on African Americans. We have to start taking on telling this part of the story from our perspective.”
Jones, who also appears on the AppleTV hit Morning Show, was part of the modern wave of Black TV dads who embody a different version of Black life than previously seen. Now, its a quotidian experience to see paragons of fatherhood like Randall Pearson (“This Is Us”), Dre Johnson (“Black-ish”), and Joe West (“The Flash”) on TV. Jones says, “The main thing is, it’s not about me but that the positive image of African American genius and African Americans family love has now been projected around the world.”
Though he doesn’t get to see them as much as he’d like, Jones is also proud of and excited about his ex Smart Guy castmates, Taj Mowry, Essence Atkins, Omar Gooding, and Jason Weaver. “We’ll run into each other and it’s always kind of a fun reunion. Omar Gooding has one of the number one comedies on Bounce TV, Taj has a show on ABC Family, and Jason is producing music. We’re all busy but when we do see each other, it’s always a happy reunion.”
As proud as Jones is of how his on-screen work has contributed to broadening understanding of the complexity of Black life, for him fictional depictions aren’t enough. He explains, “A lot of people look at scripted media as fantasy. From a reality-based perception, however, we see a skewing of the image of a young Black man toward that of the thug in the hoodie, the criminal.”
Driven by the desire to have more control of the narrative as it pertains to Black men, Jones and his fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, have launched their own streaming service, Kappa League TV. They call it CNN for young Black men. “The impetus for kappa league.tv,” Jones explains, “to be a counter-narrative to that image of the young Black man portrayed in the media as largely a thug in a hoodie who is dangerous.”
Jones was as enthusiastic as lots of other Americans a few weeks ago as Disney+ was unveiled. Much of the eagerness was about revisiting shows that many grew up watching. “I’m very excited that a whole new generation of young people is going to get exposed to ‘Smart Guy’ because of all the positive life skills training that this show provides.” Though “Smart Guy” aired on the WB network (now the CW), it was in association with Disney.
Interactions with former viewers he’s met, Jones indicates, can be emotional. “Young men and women in their thirties now that grew up on ‘Smart Guy,’ feel like the father of ‘Smart Guy’ was the dad they didn’t have. It provided some structure and guidance of what it means to be a good person. Often as artists, our greatest hope is that it would have some type of lasting impact in people’s lives and ‘Smart Guy’ has definitely done that.”