Blood Done Sign My Name
Solid, if Not Classic

The problems of the civil-rights drama are myriad—and while Jeb Stuart’s latest film avoids most of the genre’s pitfalls, it suffers from a scope that is perhaps too ambitious.  It will also fall victim to the “whites as heroes of black history” critique and features a jarring bit of casting, the specter of Mississippi Burning throwing a pretty long shadow courtesy of Michael Rooker.

But I’d much rather talk about the things the film does right, which far outweigh its weaknesses.  Hopefully, Stuart’s craft will break through the petty criticisms and easy cynicism of other viewers as easily it did mine.  I really hadn’t intended to stay up two hours past my bedtime in order to finish viewing the film—but I did anyway.  The film, which takes its title from an old gospel song lyric, is that compelling.

Jeb Stuart, director of Blood Done Sign My NameThe film’s first strength is the success with which Stuart weaves dual narrative paths through the race crisis that exploded in Oxford, North Carolina, during the summer of 1970.  Based as the story is on the autobiographical account of Timothy Tyson, one half the story is a coming-of-age tale of bonding between a father and son that feels an awful lot like a Richard Mulligan film.  Timothy at once idolizes his father, Methodist minister Vernon Tyson, and resents the difficult spot into which the minister’s pro-integration principles put his children.  So young Tyson’s growing acceptance of the civil rights movement serves as an evocative inroad for those less inclined toward a more rabble-rousing approach.

The second thread focuses on school teacher (and local black success story) Ben Chavis, an educated man who could have left Oxford forever—but who comes back to the small town in order to help lift his brothers and sisters out of their oppression.  In this regard, the film may remind you of Don Cheadle’s A Lesson Before Dying.  But the melding of that film’s ethos with that of To Kill A Mockingbird, done successfully as it is, is pretty hard to beat, and becomes more than just a reminder of other films.

The two stories come together after Tyson invites a black preacher to speak at the Oxford Methodist church—in defiance of the church board—and Chavis’ cousin winds up being the unfortunate victim of murderous redneck frustrated rage.  The injustice results, as you might expect, in rioting, KKK raids, firebombing, protest marches, and the inevitably rigged trial in which the killers are acquitted.  The detailed authenticity with which Stuart recreates the events is remarkable—again feeling as lived-in as a period Mulligan film.  You may feel like it’s the first time you’ve seen a KKK rally or cross burning depicted on film, even if you know you already have.

Stuart also recreates the sense of specific locales as genuinely as John Sayles.  When youngsters visit Robert Teel’s neighborhood store or Chavis’ Soul Food road house, you always get the sense that these are places these kids would really visit.

Casting (aside from the odd appearance, yet again, of Michael Rooker as a KKK ally) is first rate across the board.  Ricky Schroeder is strangely appealing as the elder Tyson, while Nate Parker (whom you may remember from Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters) hits the right reserved but driven tones as a reluctant but motivated civil rights leader.  It’s also nice seeing Nick Searcy playing against type once more.

The thing I like best about the film, though, is that at every step along the way it avoids the triumphalist tone of so many civil rights films.  Not once do you get the impression that this is one of those “one act changed everything forever” stories.  Instead it recognizes that the progression toward racial equality was—and remains—a two-step-forward, one-step-back proposition.  It’s a good thing that we don’t get to the end of the film thinking that everything’s gonna be rosy.

Still, I do think that Stuart could have left the courtroom scenes out entirely.  This film adds absolutely nothing to the cinematic body of civil rights jurisprudence knowledge that past efforts have contributed.  The strength of Stuart’s film lies not in legal ramifications but in human ramifications.  These will keep you hooked through the two-plus hour running time, and will leave you feeling inspired and satisfied even if the last twenty minutes come off as rather rushed and perfunctory.

Do yourself a favor.  Ditch the latest werewolf, vampire, or heist film and revisit a vital piece of American history that will invoke some of the best that cinematic history also has to offer.

Blood Done Sign My Name is rated PG-13 for “an intense scene of violence, thematic material involving racism, and for language.”  That’s fair—and appropriate, given the subject matter.  But with parental supervision, there’s no reason at all this wouldn’t make great, educational, and inspirational family viewing.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Blood Done Sign My Name.