‘There is a Black fee and a white fee’

There are a lot of laughs to be had in Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison, the new mockumentary written by, directed by, produced by and starring Romany Malco, who’s been perfecting the titular character for nearly 20 years, from early videos for friends to MySpace to Funny or Die to YouTube.

The chain-smoking, motor-mouthed ne’er-do-well from Hollywood (Florida) has been in and out of the prison system his entire adult life, yet he remains irrevocably optimistic and plans to launch a career as a motivational speaker, if only he could stop sabotaging himself at every turn.

Yet Malco, the actor best known for projects like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Weeds and A Million Little Things, is clearly using comedy as a platform to comment on the cycle of mass incarceration that plagues the United States and particularly the African-American community.

“You’ve got these people being cycled into prison, like we call it ‘gladiator school,’ and then put back into the community. And unfortunately this process creates a lot of trauma,” Malco tells Yahoo Entertainment during a recent video chat interview (watch above). “As a result of that, I wanted to show the person who’s dealing with that emotional disorder or potentially that learning disorder. Having to navigate his way through this world and show how he’s misunderstood and how he consistently gets in his own way.”

Malco likens his character TJ, as he’s known, to George Floyd, who was arrested several times between 1997 and 2005, spending months in jail. Floyd was killed by a white police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for over eight minutes after Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit bill in Minneapolis.

“I wanted to show that that brother is in your family, in your family — I know you got an uncle or a cousin or somebody that y’all consider a knucklehead, that’s just like this dude. And I wanted to highlight that to everyone so that they would be more sensitive to the George Floyds of the world … all these young men that these politicians have labeled as predators or deplorables. They grow up to be Tijuana Jackson, if they even survive.”

Romany Malco in Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison. (Garlin Pictures)

The murder of Floyd sparked off months of Black Lives Matter protests and has forced Americans to confront just how deep systemic racism in the U.S. cuts. The racial reckoning has been especially pronounced in Hollywood, where several Black actors have shared stories of the biases they’ve faced over the years.

Malco, a rapper turned actor who arrived in Los Angeles upon signing a deal with Virgin Records in 1991, says his industry’s discrimination was evident from his earliest experiences.

“I’ve definitely found that there is a Black fee and a white fee. Very, very early in my business, when I first started, I remember negotiating my first show and they literally were trying to pay me about $8,000 less than the other cast members.” (Malco declined to name the television show, but it’s pretty evident from a look at his IMDb filmography.)

“Their reason was, ‘Well, Romany doesn’t have as much experience and blah blah blah.’ And I’m like, ‘As much experience as who? Who’s got the most experience on this cast? Show me your top billing talent, because I knew what the other people were making. Me and my agent got on the phone and she was like, ‘Rom, it’s your first job. You need this job. It’s going to help you get other jobs.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I ain’t taking it for that s***. I ain’t taking it for that s*** ever.’

“I talked to them, and they end up coming up a couple grand, and she was like, ‘You are one lucky MF. They actually came up … so congratulations.’ I was like, ‘I ain’t taking that job. I told you, either pay me as much as or more [than] the other cast members, or just find another brother. And I literally stuck to my guns. She hung up the phone on me, and then she had to tell them that I wasn’t doing the job. Then they had to tell her that they were willing to pay me equally. And I pretty much navigated through Hollywood in the same way.”

Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison is now streaming.

Watch the trailer:

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