It’s an oft-told tale, usually found on television as a Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast: a small Southern town torn apart by a racial killing. Sadly, there are lots of these kinds of stories, so the one told in “Blood Done Sign My Name” has to try hard to make a mark for itself. Even sadder, it’s based on a true story.
The film recounts the events surrounding the murder of a young black man just returned from Vietnam. He is mistakenly thought to have spoken provocatively to a white woman outside a store in Oxford, N.C. This is the catalyzing event of the story, but that is not what the story is about.
The story is told with two parallel characters. We are first introduced to Rev. Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder), the young, white progressive pastor newly arrived at Oxford United Methodist Church. I say “progressive” because that is what we say today; in those days he would be called, nicely, “liberal.”
The other character is Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), the new black history teacher at the local black high school. Chavis comes from the black intelligentsia and is well connected to his culture’s elite.
Tyson starts talking about race in his church, but his congregation is cold and indifferent. He makes it clear to his leadership that a dam with 400 years of wrong behind it is about to burst, and they need to find higher ground before it does.
Chavis tells his students that you have to speak to power for things to change. He attempts to get the town council to put up goals in the city park for the young men of his community to play basketball. He finds that the council can work around any request made by blacks.
Then comes the murder, committed by a white father and his two sons. This brings civil unrest to the town, and we see all manner of things done, both right and wrong, in the name of calling power to treat blacks equally and fairly.
This movie is based on a book by Tim Tyson, a professor at Duke University and the grown son of Vernon Tyson.
Jeb Stuart, who wrote screenplays for “Die Hard” and “The Fugitive,” wrote and directed this movie. Stuart is a North Carolinian and knows something of the culture depicted in the movie. But that is not the help his movie needs.
The movie suffers from the fact that this movie has been made many times before. There’s no new ground, no new information. Whites treated blacks with hatred and disdain, and killing of blacks took place at an alarming rate.
The one thing it has going for it is telling the story using a minister as a central character. After arriving, Tyson goes to visit a homebound parishioner. She says she heard him preach on the radio. She then tells him that there are two kinds of ministers: priests who speak words of comfort and prophets who speak words of confrontation and pain. She wants to know which one he is.
A minister tries to speak a prophetic word, and he pays a price. But this is nothing more than a subplot.
This movie would have been better as a TV miniseries. It’s an ambitious story that is hard to contain in the boundaries of a feature film. There’s so much set up that there is no way to pay it off in the end – and that makes for a mildly disappointing movie-going experience.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for an intense scene of violence, thematic material involving racism, and for language.
Director: Jeb Stuart
Writer: Jeb Stuart (based on the book by Tim Tyson)
Cast: Ben Chavis: Nate Parker; Vernon Tyson: Rick Schroder; Golden Frinks: Afemo Omilami; Tim Tyson: Gattlin Griffith; Billy Watkins: Michael Rooker.
The movie’s Web site is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.