Blood Done Sign My Name (review)

Cinema Throwback

I say “See it,” but good luck finding Blood Done Sign My Name at your local multiplex. The site I generally use for all my box office info, Box Office Mojo, doesn’t even acknowledge that the film is opening today. Another site, The Numbers, has the film debuting on a paltry 95 screens. Thirty years ago, when mainstream movies were still intended for grownups, this would have been An Event, a movie that serious film fans would have been clamoring to see: a smart, serious, honest, passionate, well-crafted story about a tough social problem for which there are no easy solutions. Today, it seems, the closest mainstream movies can get to such a thing is Sandra Bullock in a blond wig and an over-the-top accent dishing out quick fixes, with hugs all round as the credits roll.
I challenge anyone who sincerely believes that The Blind Side is a good film to take a look at this one and see how this kind of story is meant to be told.

This one is based on a true story, too: of a racially charged murder in small-town North Carolina in 1970, which helped drive one man, Ben Chavis, who was a young schoolteacher in the area at the time, to eventually become the youngest head of the NAACP; and influenced the course of the life of one boy, Timothy Tyson, who was a sensitive ten-year-old then and later went on to become a professor of African-American studies and author of the book [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] upon which this film is based. But this isn’t a tale of triumph coming out of adversity or any other feel-good pabulum: it ends much as it begins, with everyone just as scared, angry, bewildered, and frustrated as when the story opens.

It opens as the Reverend Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder: The Andromeda Strain) and his family — including young Tim (Gattlin Griffith: Couples Retreat, Changeling) — arrive in Oxford, North Carolina: Vernon is about to take over the all-white Methodist church in town, but his progressive, integrationist ideas are not going to sit well with the local powers-that-be. He’s the kind of preacher who’s a “prophet,” one of his new parishioners explains approvingly, someone who “challenges us with the difficult things we need to hear.” (The same could be said about Blood the film: it’s something of a challenge to what popular movies are “supposed” to be these days, in that it’s not easy or simple, which is why it’s considered “arthouse.” Which is ridiculous. That this straightforward, no-nonsense movie is considered an “art” film, as if it must necessarily appeal to only a tiny sliver of the potential audience, is a sad indictment of how dumbed down our culture has gotten.) Vernon wants to invite a black minister to speak at a Sunday service, and he’s going to have a fight on his hands to make it happen…

Meanwhile, Ben Chavis (Nate Parker: The Secret Life of Bees, The Great Debaters) has returned home from university to take up teaching in the all-black high school in Oxford, and is disgusted by how little has changed in the town since he’s been away, even years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was supposed to begin righting some past wrongs. His attempts to go through the system of the all-white town elders to do something as basic as restore the basketball hoops to the town park (which would, of course, mean that black kids might hang out and play there) is blocked at every step. But he’s got a few other ideas up his sleeve for bringing some life to Oxford, including reopening the drive-in restaurant his grandfather once ran on the outskirts of town, since blacks aren’t much welcomed on Main Street…

I want to say that there’s something old-fashioned about Blood, though that sounds like an insult these days and I certainly don’t mean it like that: the old-fashionedness is in writer-director Jeb Stuart’s dedication to storytelling without any pretense to anything other than the story and the indignation it inspires. There are no stars here who demand dramatic moments of speechifying; there is no coddling of reality in order to protect the audience from having to think about or feel something uncomfortable for which there is no corresponding way out to keep us from having to dwell on it later. Which isn’t to say, either, that this isn’t a powerfully told story with a traditional narrative. Through the separate threads of Chavis and the Tysons, Stuart (who wrote The Fugitive and Die Hard) builds inexorably to the reason he’s telling the tale in the first place: the powder keg atmosphere of Oxford results in the brutal murder of a completely innocent black man by three white men. But it’s in how Stuart gets there, and where he goes afterward — in the further miscarriage of justice that occurs in the aftermath, and how those outraged by it all respond — that makes Blood so genuine and so rewarding a film.

Though there are white characters here, Stuart avoids the trap that many similar films fall into: there is nothing paternalistic about Blood, nothing that suggests that there’s anything exceptionally dignified in a white man who deigns to help his inferiors, ie, poor black folk. And there’s no touch at all of the distasteful “Magic Negro” in how young, white Tim is impacted by his experiences in Oxford, as if — as it often comes across on film — black people were only around to make whites better people. Though religion figures heavily in the story, there’s a refreshing lack of patronizing in Vernon’s righteous anger at the bigotry of his fellows: in fact, Vernon is the kind of character who makes you wish that more people — in real life as well as onscreen — who professed to be Christian actually followed the dictates of Jesus.

It all comes together in some of the most unexpected moments I’ve seen in a movie in a while, perhaps most memorably for me — as a white girl who tries not to let her white privilege blind her, though it probably sometimes does — in the scene in which Vernon takes Tim and another son to witness, from a distance, a Klan cross burning in their town. Stuart frames it like something out of a horror movie — as, of course, it is. The contrast between Vernon forcing his kids to watch this awful event in order to teach them about the evils of hate, and the kids of the Klan members running around and enjoying the party atmosphere, having been taught hate as a good thing, is potent. We just don’t see moments like this onscreen these days: unvarnished yet indelible, irate and ardent without feeling the need to overenunciate it all for us, as if we were simpletons.

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