In “South,” Chantal Akerman conjures the ghosts of the hate crimes and lynchings that have plagued that part of the U.S. for decades. Originally planned as a broadly focused view inspired by the literature of William Faulkner and James Baldwin, the documentary was modified following a brutal racial slaying that took place during its development. While the director’s customarily spare style is not going to give Errol Morris any sleepless nights, her measured approach makes its sorrowful points succinctly. Public TV appears the most suitable outlet for this no-frills, video-shot production.
Filmed in the rural township of Jasper, Texas, “South” examines the impact on the community of the murder of James Byrd Jr., a black family man severely beaten by three white men, then chained to their truck and dragged three miles through predominantly black parts of the county. But while Akerman weighs different responses to the crime, her interest in the investigative course is minimal.
The need to find some positive outcome in the community’s raised consciousness is underlined at a memorial service in a black church, while the white town sheriff is intent on pointing out that the locality’s main problems are economic ones, and that unemployment and financial woes are at the root of racial crimes.
Going beyond the Byrd murder, Akerman talks to locals who recall harsh racial incidents from the past and discuss the change in attitudes before and after the Civil Rights Movement. The film also touches on the rise of the White Supremacist and Aryan Nation movements masked as Christian organizations. But only a limited number of interviews are used, and the documentary is far more concerned with impres-sions than information.
As in her features, the director holds static shots for inordinate lengths of time, which undoubtedly will test many viewers’ patience. Her trademark slow-crawl camerawork also is much in evidence, here cruising the silent countryside and streets of neighborhoods lined with dilapidated housing. The film culminates effectively in a protracted, funereal tour of the long stretch of road over which Byrd was dragged to his death.