'Blood Done Sign My Name' details a civil-rights drama

Nate Parker in a scene from "Blood Done Sign My Name."
Nate Parker in a scene from "Blood Done Sign My Name."
Posted: February 19, 2010

The title to "Blood Done Sign My Name" is taken from a gospel tune implying that without sacrifice, there is no redemption.

Appropriate for this fact-based movie about a 1970 murder in a North Carolina town that moved the local African-American population to demand civil rights that were rather late in arriving to their sleepy tobacco-road hamlet.

Though written and directed by Jeb Stuart, best known for penning "Die Hard" and "The Fugitive," "Blood Done Sign My Name" is measured, detailed docudrama. It's presented as a profile of a community (Oxford, N.C.), and bounces from family to family, place to place, church to church, introducing us to its black and white citizens.

They include a white minister (Ricky Schroder) just arrived with his family to take over the Methodist church with ambitious ideas about the potential of Christian ideals to change ingrained prejudice.

Another is Ben Chavez (Nate Parker), a black man who returns from college to re-open his family's restaurant business, and maybe open a few minds - he launches a drive to integrate the city's recreational areas.

Both men find themselves stymied by ingrained prejudice, the kind embodied by a local businessman (Robert Teel) who refuses to serve black customers in his main street barbershop, or hire any in his grocery store.

Times are changing, the people of Oxford are not, building tension that explodes one night when a black Vietnam vet just back from overseas is beaten and then executed by the businessman and his two sons, leading to a trial before an all-white jury that results in acquittals.

The town explodes in violence, but director Stuart maintains an observer's detachment, with an eye toward the town's long-term evolution - the action takes place over a span of several months, and the trial is prelude to the real change Stuart wants to dramatize.

Much of it turns out to be social rather than legal. Stuart introduces us to Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami), a civil rights organizer who arrives to help the town's black residents mobilize.

Subsequent boycotts of white-owned business, demands for economic and social integration, yield real long-term benefits, and make life-long activists of men like Chavis.

Schroder's character never makes much headway with his white congregation, and "Blood" ends with him once again strapping suitcases to the roof of his car. He did make an impression on his son Timothy, who became a professor of African-American studies, and wrote the book upon which the movie is made. The civil rights movement, like the Civil War, is best known for its great battles and great leaders. But there were smaller skirmishes, just as important, and "Blood Done Sign My Name" tells the story of one.

Produced, written and directed by Jeb Stuart; distributed by Palladin (II).

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