Based on a true story - and a brutal one, like so many to emerge from the Jim Crow South - Jeb Stuart's Blood Done Sign My Name is set in Oxford, N.C., a seemingly sleepy burg where, as late as 1970, desegregation hadn't happened: Blacks couldn't get haircuts in white-owned barbershops, or get jobs that weren't along the lines of janitor or maid.
The schools, and even the hospitals, were still separate - for white folks, for black folks, no intermingling. The churches, too.
Enter the Rev. Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder), a white Methodist pastor with a wife (Susan Walters) and four kids in tow, who settles into his new parish - and proceeds to unsettle the town with his talk of integration and equality.
When a black veteran returns home and is killed - multiple shotgun wounds and a savage beating, allegedly at the hands of a trio of white Oxfordians - the proverbial dam bursts. There is looting, there is rioting in the streets. A trial, by an all-white jury, presided over by a white judge, ends with the men charged with murder being set free. Verdict: not guilty.
An apt feature to be released in this, Black History Month, Blood Done Sign My Name has the look and feel of a dependable TV movie - the shiny vintage cars; the not-quite-stereotypical but not-quite-real character types; the dialogue that's more declarative than deep. But the story - one of anger turned to purpose, one that uses Frederick Douglass' famous quote, "Power concedes nothing without a demand," as a rallying cry - remains an important and instructive one.
Also of interest is the film's depiction of Benjamin Chavis - the civil rights activist and former NAACP leader, and an Oxford native - portrayed here by Nate Parker (The Great Debaters). As a schoolteacher whose efforts to work within the local (white) political system lead nowhere, Chavis is radicalized by the killing of Henry "Dickie" Marrow. With a mix of resolve and rage, Chavis organizes marches and rallies, joining forces with Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami), the "Great Agitator," who rolls in from the North to fan the flames and get the media on board.
With a cast that includes Lela Rochon and the young Gattlin Griffith as the minister's son, Tim Tyson (the film was adapted from his book), Blood Done Sign My Name may not be great cinema, but it nonetheless deserves attention.