Movie Review: Blood Done Sign My Name
The Charlotte Observer
There’s a wonderful scene in “Blood Done Sign My Name” where the Rev. Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder) takes his sons into the North Carolina countryside. They peep over a rise and see their Oxford neighbors at a social gathering. Adults chattily unpack baskets, while kids scurry around in the grass. A couple of fellows lift a cross at the back of the picnic grounds. A little later, they set it on fire.
Writer-director Jeb Stuart, himself a preacher’s son from Gastonia, takes every opportunity to nudge us out of complacency in adapting Tim Tyson’s memoir about an ugly incident in Tyson’s boyhood.
On one level, we know where we’re going when white men kill a black Vietnam veteran in May 1970. No all-white Southern jury then would convict Caucasian neighbors, even mean and disrespected ones, of murdering a little-known black man.
Yet on another level, Stuart keeps surprising us with bits of humor, unexpected twists in the story and a subtlety you may not expect from the guy who wrote “Die Hard” and “Another 48 Hrs.” There’s no maudlin outburst when the battered vet dies; it happens off screen, as an ambulance taking him to a nearby hospital switches off its lights and turns silently back to town.
Folks with long memories or a copy of Tyson’s well-written book will recall the sad events that inspired it.
Robert Teel (Nick Searcy), a white storekeeper in a black neighborhood, shoots a man who allegedly insulted his daughter-in-law. He and his two sons, who further assaulted the victim, are ably defended by a shrewd lawyer (Michael Rooker) and set free.
Protests of every kind ensue, from civil rights marches to looting to Molotov cocktails thrown through the windows of an empty warehouse. Teacher Ben Chavis (Nate Parker) becomes so incensed that he rededicates his career to social and political action.
The movie is notable in some ways for what it doesn’t do. The white hero doesn’t save the day, and the black guy can’t get justice. The story doesn’t leave you with a sense that the system has worked or been reformed; if there are victories here, they’re small and personal.
The film’s authenticity adds piquancy to the straightforward story. Stuart knows what a hot summer night in the South looks and sounds like (and, you’d almost swear, smells like, once we get inside a soul food restaurant). He shot most of the movie around Shelby and Charlotte; through it, we slip back in time to a year when the Civil Rights Act hadn’t yet been embraced in southern states.
The acting, like the storytelling, is quietly convincing. Parker comes from Virginia, Rooker from Alabama and Searcy from Cullowhee, N.C., so perhaps Southern roots led to credible performances.
Only Rooker and Stuart are old enough to recall this era in detail, but the others catch the spirit. “Blood” may carry us into the past, but the unhappy effects linger today, like pollution darkening a sky that never turned completely blue.