An earnest, studiously straightforward message movie, Jeb Stuart’s Blood Done Sign My Name tries to get by on the strength of its performances and the writer-director’s able skirting of melodramatic clichés. Irony has no place here, aside from the bizarre fact that the maker of a civil rights drama shares his name with one of the most famous Confederate generals.
There’s something to be said for a picture that seems to have been calibrated for the classroom, one that tells a handy-dandy true story with historical significance. Compelling moments abound, but they’re conveyed in such a faithful, grounded manner that the cinematic appeal is lost. The film appeals to the brain, earns admiration, but viscerally it flops dead.
Blood Done Sign My Name depicts the 1970 murder of an African-American war veteran named Henry ‘Dickie’ Marrow, an Oxford, N.C. resident killed by three white men who thought he had spoken to one of their wives. The uproar that surrounded the killing spurred some of the first race riots in the South and prompted an economic boycott that launched the career of longtime civil rights activist Ben Chavis (Nate Parker).
This is Hollywood, however, and no rendition of a little-seen, important element of the African-American experience could possibly be complete without a sympathetic Caucasian onlooker. To that end, Stuart gives us Rev. Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroeder), the new Methodist man in town, who takes to the pulpit to decry segregation and invites an African-American colleague to speak. Granted, the reverend’s son Tim’s book provides the source material, but the Tyson family never seems more than tangentially connected to the true story here. Their heavy involvement in the narrative revives the age-old tactic of sullying minority stories by playing up the heroic White man as our doppelganger.
Schroeder has little to do but look on with great concern, his blonde mop top hair style lending him a pure, youthful aura. He lends as much credibility as possible to his character’s exceedingly genuine nature. Yet, the Tyson scenes, which occupy close to half the movie, frame the man as such a conscientious figure, so committed to doing the right thing no matter the cost, that he hardly seems real. Surely, his long talks with Tim (Gattlin Griffith) about the dangers of racism were seminal moments in the real Tim’s life, but they’re not particularly gripping for the rest of us.
Aesthetically, Stuart opts for a mundane assemblage of under lit rural streets and plain docudrama tableaux. He takes no chances, contrasting the close-knit African-American community with the stern, excessively formal whites and incorporating conventional court room interrogations. Nothing distinguishes Oxford from countless other movie towns just like it. Even as outrage mounts, the activist Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami) ratchets up the rhetoric and organized protests commence the movie lacks urgency, missing the sense that the events being portrayed would have true transformative potential.
Nate Parker, as Chavis, provides a strong silent counterpart to Schroeder. Through intense, determined stares Parker, a gifted young actor, adeptly reveals the gears churning in his character’s head during his awakening of sorts. It’s a low-key way to present a transformative period, one that Parker imbues with the sincerity of a natural born leader gradually realizing he’s found his life’s calling.
Despite his strong work, the movie remains a rather stagnant experience. Blood Done Sign My Name cycles through the events at hand with clarity and efficiency but it feels like a show, as if assembled solely to convey what President Obama might deem a “teachable moment.” The history at hand, little remembered, carries its own inherent power and Stuart admirably adheres to its details sans convoluted excess. But the story never fully comes to life.
The Upside: Nate Parker gives a strong performance as civil rights activist Ben Chavis, and the movie depicts an important, lesser-known moment of the struggle for equality.
The Downside: It’s too straightforward, too geared for vanilla classroom viewing.
On the Side: The real Ben Chavis served around four years in prison as one of the Wilmington Ten falsely accused of firebombing, conspiracy and arson after a Wilmington, N.C. event.