[An excellent book by Tim Tyson, now issued as film which sounds very promising — Lew Rosenbaum]
North Carolina as It Was, Split and Seething
A scene from “Blood Done Sign My Name,” which opens on Friday and features Nate Parker, center.
WHETHER or not North Carolinians are more inclined than other Americans to follow Thomas Wolfe’s injunction to “look homeward,” some past the age of 50 have personal reasons to cast a retrospective glance on the state of their youth. It was a time when a century of Jim Crow laws and segregation were being challenged by the advocates of civil rights in a struggle that was often more bitter and bloody than popular history likes to admit.
For Robert K. Steel, the re-evaluation of his placid recollections of the white-picket-fence world of Durham, N.C., accelerated in the summer of 2005 when he read Timothy B. Tyson’s “Blood Done Sign My Name.” That acclaimed book recounts how, in 1970, the author’s hometown, Oxford, N.C., erupted in racial turmoil after an all-white jury acquitted a white store owner and one of his sons of the murder of a young black man.
A former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, Mr. Steel found Dr. Tyson’s work “fascinating and compelling,” he said in an interview in his office in Greenwich, Conn. Though he’d never had an itch for movie producing, he was so struck by the book’s cinematic potential that he urged it on a Greenwich acquaintance and fellow North Carolina native, Jeb Stuart, who has screenwriting credits on Hollywood action hits including “Die Hard” and “The Fugitive.” The result of their collaboration reaches theaters across the Southeast and in other major markets on Friday.
Mr. Stuart also found personal as well as cinematic reasons to connect with the material. Dr. Tyson, who was 11 in 1970, chronicles the struggles that his father, Vernon, a Methodist minister, faced in advocating civil rights progress to a conservative parish. (Vernon Tyson was effectively driven out of Oxford by the end of 1970.) Mr. Stuart’s father was a Presbyterian minister who faced similar trials in Gastonia, N.C.
When Mr. Steel and Mr. Stuart met with Dr. Tyson to discuss turning “Blood Done Sign My Name” into a movie, with Mr. Stuart as writer and director, the author was initially leery of turning over his work to a Hollywood filmmaker bearing the name of a Confederate general. (Mr. Stuart was nicknamed for, but not descended from, the rebel cavalry officer J. E. B. Stuart.) But the men soon discovered they agreed on what the movie should avoid.
“One of the goals was not to make ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” Mr. Stuart said in an interview at Mr. Steel’s Greenwich office. “What always happens in the way Hollywood tells these stories is that the white guy saves the day. I did not want to fall into that trap. The Tysons got run out of town. Tim’s dad is one of my heroes in this movie, but he’s not Gregory Peck. He’s not going to make it all right for everybody.”
Besides being a fan of “The Fugitive” Dr. Tyson was happy to learn that he and Mr. Stuart both loathe movies like “Mississippi Burning” and “Ghosts of Mississippi,” in which conflicts between good and bad white people overshadow the actions of blacks. Interviewed by phone from his current home in Durham, where he teaches African-American studies at Duke University, Dr. Tyson said that Hollywood’s distortions have helped reinforce the gauzy mythology of the struggles of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and others.
“We have this sugarcoated confection of the civil rights movement in popular memory,” he said. “It’s interracial, it’s nonviolent, and it’s successful. Nobody ever opposed it. In this rendition the civil rights movement is largely a call to America’s conscience that America pretty much answered.” The reality, he said, was more complex.
“The sit-ins swept out of North Carolina and across the South in the spring of 1960, and there were practically no grown-ups in the United States who thought right away that it was a good idea, but the young people just did it anyway. Most Americans thought it was bad and crazy. In 1961 the Freedom Riders rolled through the region, criticized sharply by the Kennedy administration as well as the Southern politicians, denounced in emphatic terms by The New York Times, and three-quarters of Americans disapproved.”
Many minds changed in the next few years, he noted, but even by 1970 much had not changed. In Oxford the movie theaters were still segregated. Downtown businesses sold to African-Americans but would hire them only as janitors. Public pools and recreation areas had been closed to keep them out. Thus, in May of that year, when a young black Vietnam veteran named Henry Marrow was beaten and killed on an Oxford street by three white men, an incident watched by several witnesses, the town was ready for an explosion. As the movie shows, the trial of two of the men was of intense concern to 22-year-old Ben Chavis (played by Nate Parker), a black Oxford native who had recently returned to teach high school after having become a civil rights organizer while in college in Charlotte, N.C.
“The verdict came back on a Sunday morning,” recalled Dr. Chavis, now 62, in an interview at the Manhattan offices of Hip Hop Summit, an organization he heads with the record mogul Russell Simmons. Hearing that the white men had been exonerated, “people were angry, so, so angry,” he said. “Probably the hardest speech of my life was back at the First Baptist Church. I just asked the question: Why? Not why do the whites do what they do, but why do we do what we do? Why do we accept it?”
The days of passive acceptance, it turned out, were over. In the wake of the acquittals, crimes aimed at white businesses included the firebombing of several tobacco warehouses, attacks that suggested the skills of Mr. Marrow’s fellow Vietnam veterans.
Dr. Chavis said, however, that he believes the actions that brought change were the legal ones. He led a protest march from Oxford to the state capital, which helped lay the groundwork for a boycott of white businesses that lasted 18 months and finally forced full integration on Oxford.
Dr. Chavis echoed remarks by Dr. Tyson in saying that he believes the struggles depicted in both the book and the movie are not particular to North Carolina or the region.
“Malcolm X once said that the South is anything south of the Canadian border. On certain issues the whole country is the South.”