An introspective but somewhat Hollywoodized treatment of a hate crime that shook the nation, Showtime’s “Jasper, Texas” offers an even-handed account of the intense emotions surrounding the murder and an almost hopeful vision of the subsequent efforts made to heal a fractured community.
While the provocative PBS docu “The Two Towns of Jasper” is a seminal piece on the state of racism, this project, from Spike Lee protege Jeff Byrd, is like a soothing ointment for a deep and unsettling wound. Instead of just dissecting the race issue, writer-exec producer Jonathan Estrin explores how the traumatic events affected those closest to the victim and looks at the extraordinary pressure put upon regular folks while under the scrutiny of an entire country.
With barely enough time to mourn, let alone comprehend the 1998 brutal death of James Byrd Jr. (no relation to the director), who was dragged to his death over three miles of country road chained to the back of a pickup truck, the citizens of Jasper find themselves at the center of a political and media firestorm.
At the heart of the frenzy are Sheriff Billy Rowles (Jon Voight) and R.C. Horn (Louis Gossett Jr.), the town’s first black mayor. While Jasper is nowhere near the redneck hamlet the press tries to portray, neither Rowles nor Horn are prepared to shoulder the responsibility as the town’s representatives to the nation. Rowles has virtually no public speaking experience and Horn’s diplomacy skills have never been fully tested. Their inexperience translates into the media as a Mayberry-esque farce with bigotry run amok. The truth, it seems, is much more complicated.
Initially, Rowles (and even Horn) presents the murder as an isolated case committed by three racist extremists. But as the facts of the murder come to light, both men, and the entire town, are forced to take a good look at their own deep-seated prejudice.
Jasper quickly becomes a national soapbox for the likes of the Black Panthers and KKK, and anyone with a political agenda. But when it comes down to the murder trial and its aftermath, the townfolk must face the biggest hurdle — returning to their regular lives, which will be forever changed.
The director’s focus is very personal. Although he doesn’t linger on details of the court case, the murder is presented in full-color detail. It is handled almost clinically, but not without sensitivity. To dance around the facts would be too great a disservice. To exploit the sensational nature of the crime also would be wrong. Instead, Byrd puts his trust into his very capable cast.