So, reading the review before you see the movie “spoils” it for you? Then go see the movie first! Sheesh!
When Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was released, it didn’t do very well. It didn’t fit into people’s idea of what a war movie should be. It was not a movie about heroics, or about the pitting of the virtuous against the ignoble. There was not epic uninterrupted violence, punctuated by nostalgic remembrances of the girl back home. Instead, there were long silent stretches, punctuated almost unexpectedly by bursts of violent confusion – scenes that were over quickly, only to be replaced by more waiting, more silence. The accusation of many was that the movie was boring. But what I came away with instead was that the movie was brilliant – it was war that was boring – that the experience of soldiers was of anxiety melting into boredom, then an unexpected burst of confusion and violence, followed by silence, anxious waiting for another attack, and then, if one did not come immediately, more boredom. It seemed more realistic than any other war movie I had ever seen. But what do I know? It’s not like I fought in the Pacific.
Similarly, I was not yet alive in 1970. I was born 3 years later in Fairfax County, Virginia. I attended diverse and integrated public schools – my kindergarten class included African-Americans and white students, as one might expect in Virginia, but also East Asians and Latinos, at least one child whose parents were from India, and a girl who spoke only Swedish. So being miles away from the Oxford, NC described in the movie Blood Done Sign My Name makes me as ill-equipped to say what the Jim Crow South was like as I am to say what World War Two was like. But I imagine that life in Oxford in 1970 was something parallel to the complaint that people are going to have about this movie – that it was disjointed, like 2 stories that ostensibly shared a setting, but didn’t quite hang together.
That is one of the reasons I loved this movie – it wasn’t like what people think a movie should be – all polished and tied up with a bow. The “heroes” don’t win, the “villains” are not converted. But worse, it doesn’t quite hold together. What does Vernon Tyson have to do with Ben Chavis? Some might suggest that this movie should have stuck with one story or the other, or that writer-director Stuart should have invented more connections between the two stories to make them into one. But those who would say so are missing a critical point: the stories of Vernon Tyson and Ben Chavis were disconnected –the separateness of between their two stories IS the story.
In the movie, the whites live in a delusion that they have “good relations with the negroes.” In their fairy tale, blacks exist not as people – as actors – but as objects, to be acted upon. Anything significant that can happen must be done by a white person (and so it is that they suggest at the end of the movie that Tyson is behind the boycott.) Vernon warns that if the white people of the town do not end segregation, then the people of the black community will bring it to an end themselves, like a dam bursting. But he is not heard, at least in part because his white congregation fails to recognize the capacity of African-Americans to act.
Prophets are sometimes call seers – see-ers – and Vernon Tyson sees what is happening in Oxford – in North Carolina, in the nation. He sees, and he points. He does not make anything happen in Oxford, anymore than the rooster makes the sun rise. Neither does he mysteriously predict some far off catastrophe, like Nostradamus. Like any true prophet, he just sees the present more clearly than his contemporaries, and proclaims it to mostly deaf ears, just minutes before the dam bursts. Does Vernon Tyson make any difference? To himself. To his family. Perhaps to few others.
Chavis and his cohort, on the other hand, make a marked difference in Oxford. Contrary to the delusions of the white community, the women and men of the black community are not content to be janitors and maids, to sit in movie balconies and pay 50 cents extra for a bag of flour – much less to be shot with impunity over a misunderstanding. All that the black community needs to effect change is to wed their desire for change to a conviction that have the power to demand – and take hold of – that change. Their actions take a number of forms, both destructive and non-violent, but in the end, it is Chavis’ call for a boycott of white businesses – and the readiness of the black community to join in such a boycott – that brings down segregation in Oxford.
While the movie begins and ends the Tyson family, it is tempting to wish that Stuart had cut the Tysons out of the script altogether, focusing entirely on the events surrounding the Henry Marrow case. But the contrast and disconnect between these two narrative threads immerses the viewer into the alienation that was life in Oxford in 1970, and so provides (I imagine) something like the experience of life in the Jim Crow South to those of us who were lucky enough never to have experienced it.