Movie lifts up racial struggle in North Carolina

2/24/2010

Feb. 16, 2010

Protesters call for racial justice in a scene from 'Blood Done Sign My Name.' UMNS photos courtesy of Paladin / Real Folk Productions.
Protesters call for racial justice in a scene from "Blood Done Sign My Name."
UMNS photos courtesy of Paladin / Real Folk Productions.

Filmmaker Jeb Stuart and historian Tim Tyson are both preacher’s kids, now in their 50s, who grew up in North Carolina at a time when attempts at racial integration still sparked tensions that could lead to violence and murder.

So when Stuart read “Blood Done Sign My Name,” Tyson’s evocative memoir focusing on the murder of an African-American Vietnam veteran in the writer’s hometown, the director felt an instant connection.

The connection extended from a young person’s perspective on the struggle for social justice and racial equality in the South down to the moral issues faced by their fathers, white pastors forced to take unpopular stands in their communities.

The result is the movie “Blood Done Sign My Name,” which opens on Feb. 19 in selected theaters nationwide. The film, whose title is taken from an old gospel song, had its official premiere on Feb. 10, opening the Pan-African Film and Arts Festival in Los Angeles.

At the centerpiece of both Tyson’s book and Stuart’s movie is the 1970 murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow, an African-American Vietnam veteran, in the small town of Oxford, N.C. The refusal of an all-white jury to convict the men who eyewitnesses had identified as his killers generated anger but also led to the empowerment of Oxford’s black community. Tyson’s father, the Rev. Vernon Tyson, was pastor of the United Methodist congregation.

Jeb Stuart directed, wrote and was a producer of the movie.
Jeb Stuart directed, wrote and was a producer of the movie.

Although better known as a screenwriter for blockbuster action films such as “Die Hard” and “The Fugitive,” Stuart in his new movie has produced what both men believe transcends the typical Hollywood treatment of a civil rights story.

Instead of a narrative that pits the good white folks against the evil white folks, with black characters “being used as props,” this movie shows a movement against injustice emerging out of the African-American community, Tyson pointed out. That diverse community reacts in different ways but has the same goal: “to push down the rotten old social structure of Jim Crow,” he said.

Arriving in Oxford

As the film opens, Vernon Tyson (Ricky Schroder) has moved with his family to Oxford, N.C., where he has been assigned to lead the United Methodist church there.

The movie locations were shot in Shelby, N.C., and images of the church there evoke a sense of déjà vu for anyone with Methodist roots. On the first day of filmmaking, Tyson said he and his father sat in the first pew, off camera, and watched about 200 actors performing in 1970-vintage clothing. “I just kept forgetting we weren’t actually in church,” he recalled. “It felt like every church we’d ever served.”

The murder of Henry 'Dickie' Marrow, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran, led to racial tensions and a quest for justice.
The murder of Henry "Dickie" Marrow, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran, led to racial tensions and a quest for justice.

As the plot unfolds, the pastor gets his first real taste of the town’s racial divide when an uproar occurs after he invites an eminent African-American minister to preach to the congregation on a Sunday. The elder Tyson cites the denomination’s Book of Discipline when he refuses to rescind the invitation.

Stuart asked his father, the Rev. James G. Stuart -- now retired and living in Gastonia, N.C. -- about the difficulty of pushing a congregation toward integration at the risk of losing a job. "He lowered whatever he was reading at the time and looked at me and said, 'It was the most stressful part of my career.'"

The story moves beyond the Tyson family and the church’s all-white congregation to the other residents of Oxford, most notably Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), a young teacher – and future civil rights leader-- who has returned to his hometown.

After Marrow, his cousin, is attacked and killed, an all-white jury acquits the white storeowner and his sons who are charged with the crime. Oxford’s African-American community is outraged. Reactions range from rioting and the vandalizing of public monuments to the organization of a 50-mile freedom march and economic boycott.

“Jeb did a brilliant job cutting to the heart of the matter,” Tyson said about Stuart’s adaptation of his book. “The movie is not a memoir but more of an ensemble story about these families…in a community that is being torn apart by this murder.”

Faith-based audiences

Stuart hopes the movie’s story will resonate with faith-based audiences.

Jeb Stuart directs Nate Parker on the set.
Jeb Stuart directs Nate Parker on the set.

For United Methodist Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of Mississippi, “Blood Done Sign My Name” is both a Methodist story and a family story. She grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina and her sister, Perri Morgan, is married to Tyson.

“The events of our lives mark us and form us. Tim's telling of his family story invites us into our stories where we meet God still at work within and among us,” the bishop said.

“This is a movie for every person who has experienced injustice, every clergy family, every lay person, everyone engaged in the ongoing journey of racial reconciliation.”

Tyson was impressed by Stuart’s understanding of race in America.

“When the screenplay came in the mail, I read it standing in my driveway,” he said. “I didn’t even get back from the mailbox. It was so powerful and dead on.”

He believes the film will have a similar effect on others. “I hope that church folks will find this film challenging and inspiring and engaging and that it will open up a fruitful conversation, not only about race and a history that we’re still wrestling with, but about the challenges that confront us as Christians today,” Tyson said.

Stuart also wants to get across a message to young people about the history of race in the United States.

“There’s always going to be injustice,” he said. “The idea that, in every generation, you have to stand up to injustice is an important lesson.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.