It's hard to believe that events like the ones depicted in "Blood Done Sign My Name," which is based on a true story could actually have occurred as recently in our nations history as 1970 but as we tragically learn from this film ... they did! The events in the film are so well chronicled and the story itself so powerful that it is able to overcome much of its own shortcomings. The film, while very compelling often feels more like a TV movie rather than a feature film despite good acting by the cast. The movie was directed by "Die Hard" writer Jeb Stuart who does an excellent job of recreating the tension and anger of the South in the '70s while never loosing the urgency of the moment. The director is also able to juggle the two parallel storylines of the film quite well and to great affect. Although most of the characters from the two convening stories never cross paths directly we are able to see and feel the connection that these events have on everyone involved. There is no denying that this material is strong and very powerful and Stuart has managed to assemble it in a loving, somewhat shocking and entertaining way.
The film is basically two intertwining stories focusing on the lives of two real-life men, Reverend Vernon Tyson and Civil Rights activist Ben Chavis. The year is 1970 and we first meet Reverend Tyson (Ricky Schroder submitting his strongest performance in years) and his family as they move to a new town, Oxford, North Carolina. We are also introduced to Chavis (a commanding Nate Parker) a young teacher who has just returned to the town from College and was very active in the booming civil rights movement at school. Although equality was shaping up across the country much of the hatred and bigotry of the South still existed at this time. We begin to watch the community having a hard time adapting to Vernon's liberal ways and they almost lose it completely when he invites a respected African-American reverend to be a guest speaker one Sunday at church. At the same time, Ben is trying to rebuild the Black community in his town by fixing up his Father's old drive-in theater/bar as a place for the African-American community in Oxford to congregate. Things heat up for both men when Ben's cousin, Dickie Marrow is shot in cold-blood by a racist Father and Son from Oxford with several witnesses watching on.
As the trial of the two men ensues, Vernon tries desperately to hold true to his principles and set a good example for his son, Timmy, while his church community around him call for the freeing of the two killers. Meanwhile, Ben comes to terms with the loss of his cousin and what it means to the community. Ben soon meets Golden Frinks (an electric Afemo Omilami) a civil rights activist best known as a "Stoker," which means he is a master of uplifting Black Communities around tragedy to administrate change. Frinks helps Ben organize a peaceful march on the state capital, the first of its kind in the South at that time. What started, as a few of Dickie Marrow's friends and relatives marching became thousands over the course of the fifty-mile march. The trial of the Teel family eventually comes to an end and with an all-white jury, the two men are freed outraging the Black community and starting a riot in the town. Now it is up to Ben to organize the civil rights movement in Oxford and bring peace to the town before it is too late, while Vernon and his family have to deal with the repercussions of trying to bring equality to this small southern town.
The actors all do a good job with the material and seem to understand the importance of the film's message. I was really impressed with the performance of Ricky Schroder who played Vernon Tyson. Schroder, who began his career as a child actor in the film "The Champ" and on TV's "Silver Spoons", and also went on to star in such popular shows as "NYPD Blue" and "24" is right at home here in the role of a man of God. Schroder, who is a devout Mormon himself could clearly relate to Tyson's Methodist convictions and brings a certain amount of integrity to the role. He's particularly good in a scene where he takes his young son, Timmy, to a Klu Klux Klan rally to teach him a lesson about racism. The visuals of seeing the burning cross and the men in white hoods participating in the ceremony while their families watch on like spectators viewing a baseball game is very moving and thought-provoking. Nate Parker who portrays Ben Chavis in the film is also very good in his role and seems to be channeling a young Denzel Washington, which makes sense seeing that Parker's first film was directed by Washington himself. Parker inhabits just the right levels of outrage; intelligence and confusion to make the role of Chavis come alive on screen. Also excellent in the movie are Nick Searcy as the racist Robert Teel and Lela Rochon as the Tyson's housekeeper Roseana.
My biggest problem with the film is that it feels like four different movies wrapped up in one. It's a biopic about Vernon Tyson, a biopic about Ben Chavis, a film about the civil rights movement and a "Time To Kill" type film revolving around the Dickie Marrow trial. In fact, with the exception of Lela Rochon's character bridging the gap as both housekeeper to the Tyson's and a member of Oxford's Black community there is really nothing that links the different stories together. It's "Magnolia"-lite. It makes me wonder if there wasn't more footage shot with her character incorporating the two storylines that was cut for whatever reason? Nonetheless, the movie is excellent entertainment and makes for a wonderful educational tool. Stuart makes the film work despite its flaws, and the fine performances and strong factual story keep your interested throughout. If you want to learn something about our country's history in a smart, moving and entertaining way, then you will definitely enjoy "Blood Done Sign My Name."