'Wait' Has Almost Always Meant 'Never'
Jeb Stuart has directed, coproduced and adapted for the screen Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name, a combination autobiography and first-person witness to Civil Rights history. Both these North Carolinians are sons of Protestant ministers who in one way or another participated in the 1970 events portrayed, although, pastors of the Prince of Peace, and white, they were more active on the pulpit than in knee-jerk violence (against property) or fifty-mile symbolic funeral marches from Oxford to the capitol building.
There is irony in that a Jeb (James E.B.) Stuart was the Confederacy’s celebrated cavalry commander and raider, and there may be forthcoming criticism à la white Virginian William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, but there is no doubt on which side of the color line the film’s heart falls.
This latest based-on tragedies and triumphs of the Civil Rights era strives for a documentary veneer in, for example, bookending “interviews,” but the two-hours-eight-minutes blunts its force by following two threads, related as they may be. Thus, when ten-year-old Tim (Gattlin Griffith) accompanies his parents and siblings on another, concluding parish reassignment to Wilmington, it mirrors their initial move to Oxford but also brings the vantage point back, transferred though morally intact, to that thread the viewer had pretty much forgotten about.
His father, Reverend Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder, resembling Glen Campbell), preaches fraternal equality to his new, lily-white, conservative Methodist congregation. Wishing to serve as “pastor” of what parishioners want to hear while also “prophet” of what they need to hear, he defies a recalcitrant church board in inviting black Dr. Samuel Proctor (Gregory Alan Williams) to address the flock. He warns community pillars of a metaphorical impending deluge if the sluice gates of equality are not opened now, and takes his four children to a potentially dangerous spying on a family picnic-cum-Klan cross burning.
At this same time, new high school teacher Ben Chavis (Nate Parker) introduces all-black classes to the writing of Ralph Ellison, affirms that while North Carolina College student union president he had met Stokely Carmichael, explains what student union means in the first place, and defers doctoral studies to reopen “granddaddy’s old place,” the renamed Soul Kitchen restaurant-bar-hangout.
Chavis starts small, sensitizing students and protesting the loss of public park basketball rims. But blacks’ submerged resentment is unleashed by the murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow (A.C. Sanford) over his remark misunderstood as directed to a white woman. Trashing and looting the downtown where they are welcome to shop but not work, black males firebomb tobacco warehouses and threaten costly riots like those of a few years earlier. But, following a call to Ralph Abernathy, Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami) arrives, sweet-talking state troopers but down-home fiery to stir the restive oppressed, not to physical violence, but to march to Raleigh, where he -- but not they -- knows that Governor Scott will refuse to meet with the slain man’s pregnant widow Willie Mae (Milauna Jemai) and Chavis.
In dashiki and cross, he also knows what the verdict will be in the trial of the accused murderers. A realist whose work as self-defined “stoker” aims to incite constructive, not destructive, community action, he will head to Louisiana and pass the local baton on to heir apparent Chavis, quietly emerged as a leader.
Little wide-eyed Tim does and says little beyond spot observing and eliciting moral platitudes from his Reverend father. Taking up limited screen time, his story contributes nothing integral beyond the idea that white men of good will do exist. The other trajectory, that of the murder and trial and the Frinks/Chavis-instructor/student relationship, slides into unexceptional melodrama, as the two threads distract from, rather than reinforce, each other. Their convergence never comes as succinctly clear as jailed Martin Luther King’s written response to clergymen critics of his rôle in Birmingham, in which he called for legal, economic, nonviolent pressure directed not at individuals but against “privileged groups.”
(Released by Paladin and rated "PG-13" for an intense scene of violence, thematic material involving racism and for language.)