(2010)2Phillip MaherIf the producers of Blood Done Sign My Name had been a little more realistic about the cinematic quality of their final product, they could have had themselves one of the best after-school specials of all time. As it stands, the film is simply a mediocre depiction of one more shameful bit of communal white racism that has been relegated to the pages of personal memoirs, though it belongs in history textbooks. The film is essentially a two-hour commercial for integration and equality, though anyone who still feels that these principles are commodities which can be proffered is likely too ignorant or embittered to ever be convinced of their merits. Still, the filmmakers deserve credit for reviving a neglected historical episode, and if they succeed in bringing more attention to the fact that the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 often did very little to improve the racial climate in small Southern towns, then they should be proud of their achievement.
The film, which is based on the book of the same name by Timothy B. Tyson, documents a 1970 shooting of a black man named Henry Marrow that took place in Oxford, NC, where Tyson's father served as the (white) Methodist pastor. Writer and director Jeb Stuart, best known for his action screenplays (Die Hard, The Fugitive), grew up around the same time as Tyson as the (white) son of a Presbyterian minister, making this easily his most personal film to date. Unfortunately, despite this connection, Blood Done Sign My Name feels oddly sanitized throughout, due in large part to the anomalous gloss and glow of the film, which gives it the constant feel of a carefully composed and choreographed re-creation. Without exception, the characters are all impeccably dressed and immaculately manicured, and the sets and streets are polished and pristine, such that the film emanates an eerie aura of nostalgia, despite the often shameful acts of the narrative. The artificial aesthetics invalidate any attempts at authenticity, and those efforts are further hindered by the repetitive use of that most conventional of cinematic techniques, the musical montage. Beginning with the opening sequence, an entirely predictable pairing of 1960s stock footage and classic rock, Stuart repeatedly resorts to conventional montages to accelerate through the script, including the ever-popular "elbow grease" montage, where a character completely renovates a dilapidated building in the space of three dissolves and 30 seconds of screen time. Montage is a fairly safe indicator of a weak script, and there are several other symptoms supporting that diagnosis, such as the awkward attempts to keep the white pastor (played by Rick Schroder) involved in the story after the central shooting, and the fact that the character whose death motivates the film's drama has barely even been introduced before he is killed.
Blood Done Sign My Name will likely become a mainstay within junior-high history classes of the 21st century, but cinematically, its stylistic flaws outweigh its historical virtues. Perhaps in some small, sad way, we might consider it a sign of progress that depictions of racial injustice are finally becoming numerous enough that aesthetic criticism of them no longer seems derisive.
Author Timothy Tyson's acclaimed novel is adapted for the screen in this sweeping civil rights drama from director Jeb Stuart. Set in Oxford, NC, in the 1970s, Blood Done Sign My Name tells the tale of Civil Rights leader Dr. Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), who played a pivotal role in desegregating North Carolina's public school system, and who would go on to become the youngest-ever executive director and CEO of the NAACP. The film centers on the racial tensions that flared after a white father and son were charged with murdering a black man, and were subsequently acquitted of the crime despite the fact that it took place in full view of the public.