History Repeats Itself
Civil-rights-era story suffers from well-meaning complacence
On May 11, 1970, Henry "Dickie" Marrow, a 23-year-old ex-Army man, was killed by three white men in his hometown of Oxford, N.C. Although the Civil Rights movement and its hard-fought battles in the South had already claimed a number of lives--such as Emmett Till in 1955; Medgar Evers in 1963; Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins in 1963; James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964; Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968--and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed segregation in schools, the workplace, and public accommodations, both integration and black power had come slow to Granville County, of which Oxford is the county seat. And in the early summer of 1970, black nationalism and an economic boycott of the separate-but-equal Jim Crow South finally arrived in Oxford, following Marrow's brutal killing and the killers' trial, where they were found not guilty by an all-white jury.
That's the ostensible plot of the based-on-a-true-story Blood Done Sign My Name, screenwriter Jeb Stuart's second directorial effort following the 1997 thriller Switchback. Like other cinematic treatments of the Civil Rights era, such as Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi, Blood certainly has its heart in the right place. It is unapologetically sincere, its tone more than anything wanting to educate viewers about how the murder of Marrow (played by A.C. Sanford in what amounts to a bit part) transformed the African-Americans in the region, particularly a young man by the name of Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), who left Oxford for college but came back to teach at the local all-black high school. Something about the movie's narrative, though, feels a tad meandering and preening, as if it's trying to tell the story of a place through a few principal characters.
That's no doubt due to its source, the autobiographical memoir-qua-history book of the same name written by Timothy Tyson, currently a visiting professor of American Christianity and Southern culture at Duke University. In 1970, Tyson was but the youngest son (Gattlin Griffith) to Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder), the new Methodist minister at Oxford's white church. Vernon is a progressive man of the cloth, a man willing to stand up for what he believes--such as inviting Oxford's black preacher to speak--even if it means ostracizing himself and his family in the process.
That's one plot line Blood traces; the other is Ben Chavis coalescing into a community figure and leader. He reopens his grandfather's old food drive-in, he campaigns to get the basketball rims reinstalled in the city park (which were taken down to keep African-Americans out of the white neighborhood), and he tries to educate his community in what the world can offer outside the small hamlet where they live. Among these plot threads, Marrow's murder is but a tipping point, the event that catalyzes the changes that both Vernon and Ben have been telling their congregation and classroom, respectively, is coming. After Marrow's murder, Blood becomes a fairly conventional courtroom drama.
And that familiarity is the biggest problem with the movie. The story of Marrow's murder demands cinematic exploration, but every filmmaking decision turns it into a prepackaged message movie, and only rarely does it throw something different into the mix. Once is when Tim stands idly by while some other white boys denigrate some African-American boys with a racial epithet. Vernon doesn't sit Tim down for a talk; instead, he takes Tim and his older brother into the woods to spy on a Klan rally, which really takes scared straight to some next-level shit. Also excellent is character actor Afemo Omilami, who plays the great agitator Golden Frinks with a charismatic glee that belongs in a much more intelligent and militant movie.
And that's what's so disappointing about Blood's overall attitude. It approaches social justice as if it's Brussels sprouts, that thing you should know more about but don't. The thing is, the people whose lives were affected by the events dramatized here impart that vision with an unassailable purpose. The fictionalized movie is curiously bookended by what look like documentary interviews with contemporary Oxford residents talking about Marrow's murder, and these brief scenes about what actually happened and changed carry more emotional weight than the intervening movie itself.