THE DAILY VARIETY (Gotham edition)
January 17, 2002
Sundance Review: Two Towns of Jasper
by Joe Leydon
One of the most insightful, illuminating and unsettling pics ever made about race relations in the U.S., "Two Towns of Jasper" is a singularly powerful docu that should generate significant buzz among critics and sociopolitical commentators. Although produced for tube showcasing, digital-video opus merits exposure on global fest circuit and could attract receptive auds in theatrical and noncommercial venues.
On simplest level, pic is about a horrific hate crime. One June 7, 1998, in the small Texas town of Jasper, three white men brutally beat James Byrd Jr., an African-American, then chained their victim to the back of a truck. Byrd was dragged for three miles down a country road and was ultimately decapitated by a drain culvert. The men responsible for his death - John William King, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and Shawn Allen Berry - were arrested, tried and convicted. King and Brewer were sentenced to death; Berry received a life sentence.
Shortly after the murder began to attract international press coverage, longtime friends and fellow filmmakers Marco Williams and Whitney Dow joined forces to tell the story behind the story. Specifically, they traveled to Jasper to place the murder in some sort of context, to see what the racially motivated atrocity might reveal about ways race relations have changed - and, just as important, have not changed - nearly 40 years after desegregation.
Early on, Williams, an African-American helmer, and Dow, his white colleague, opted for a unique approach to interviewing Jasper residents: Williams and Jonathan Weaver, a black videographer, spoke with black locals; Dow and Steve Miller, a white videographer, posed questions to white interviewees.
This segregated style of filmmaking is bound to spark criticism in some quarters. Even so, one can't really quibble with the results. Time and again throughout "Two Towns," pic benefits immeasurably from the open and uncensored responses of Jasper residents.
At one point, an aged white businessman - member of an informal coffee Klatch titled "Bubbas in Training" - casually admits that he's never thought of the word "nigger" as demeaning or offensive. Later, Walter Diggles, a black business leader who gradually emerges as one of the docu's stars, remarks, "We can't tell what is in a white man's heart." It's difficult, maybe impossible, to conceive that either interviewee would be nearly so candid if someone of another race were present.
Whites appear to have a mostly upbeat view of race relations, while blacks suggest that whites are in deep denial. Overall, though, "Two Towns" takes great pains to emphasize Jasper is nothing like the cliche of a sleepy Southern hamlet ruled exclusively by redneck, race-baiting yahoos. Pic depicts Jasper as a racially mixed community with a black mayor, two black city councilmen, and more than a few outspoken black community leaders. After the white-dominated school board decides to hold classes on Martin Luther King Day, public outcry forces them to rescind their decision.
Mike Lout, white owner and lead reporter of radio station KJAS, is pic's unofficial narrator and Greek chorus. He's also the most complex and intriguing figure, coming off as a relatively progressive fellow who's politically savvy enough to play the role of good ol' boy when necessary.
As for the MLK Day controversy, **Dow** admits that the holiday means little or nothing to him. But, on the other hand, "I never had to sit on the back of the bus."
Equally fascinating, for strikingly different reasons, is Trent Smith, an ingratiatingly soft-spoken salesman with a head full of white-supremacy dogma and a torso covered with proudly pro-Aryan tattoos. Smith argues that, while whites and blacks may pay lip service to ideals of integration, both races would rather remain separate but equal. Like many other whites in Jasper - including the Bubbas in training - he indicates that, while Byrd probably didn't deserve to be killed so viciously, too much is being made of the crime, too much sympathy is being heaped on the less-than-virtuous victim - and too much blame is being placed on white folks in general. At the end of "Two Towns" - which was shot over nine months, during three murder trials - many locals of both races are relieved (if not amazed) to see that three white men can be convicted for the murder of a black man. As the verdict is announced at the end of one trial, there's a brief, ineffably thrilling shot of a celebratory embrace between white and black police deputies.
And while Louis Berry, brother of convicted killer Shawn Berry, adamantly refuses to accept his sibling's active participation in the killing, he feels compelled to offer a public apology - on KJAS, with a little coaching from Lout - to the Byrd family.
Still, old wounds take a long time to heal. Docu notes that, partly as a response to the Byrd tragedy, town officials decide to tear down a fence in the local cemetery that separated blacks and whites buried there. Near pic's close, however, one of Byrd's sister opines that, all things considered, nothing much has changed. "They might as well have left the fence up," she says. Jasper, like the rest of America, still has a long way to go.
Sound recording still needs a little work. Otherwise, tech credits are fine.