Adapted from Tim Tyson’s nonfiction bestseller about a 1970 racially motivated killing and its civil rights-oriented aftermath in Oxford, N.C., “Blood Done Sign My Name” comes off as a painfully old-fashioned, flatly directed exercise in passionless historical reenactment. Writer-director Jeb Stuart’s film busily backpedals from any political p.o.v., sacrificing emotional investment in the characters as the thesps slog through their designated roles. Still, to the extent that it rediscovers now-forgotten aspects of the difficult, often violent struggle for racial justice, the pic will doubtless find a secure smallscreen berth following its skedded Feb. 19 bow.
Script establishes two separate but equal focal points — one white, one black, both agents for change. The first is Vernon Tyson (Ricky Schroder), the newly appointed liberal minister of the all-white Methodist church who sincerely tries to foster racial harmony in a backward town virtually unaffected by civil rights advances. The other is Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), a doctoral candidate who has returned to Oxford to teach high school.
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Pic exposes the inequity that governs black-white relations through both men’s attempts to buck the system — Tyson by inviting a black preacher to deliver a guest sermon, Chavis by petitioning the town council to reinstate basketball in public parks. Both encounter stonewalling opposition.
When a newly returned Vietnam vet (A.C. Sanford) is brutally beaten and shot by a store owner (Nick Searcy) and his two sons, black anger explodes in looting and undirected violence. While the governor summons the National Guard, Chavis’ mother (Donna Biscoe) calls in the NAACP, which dispatches Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami, in a standout perf), a silver-tongued agitator whose job is to keep the black populace’s eyes on the prize. When the young vet’s murderers are found not guilty by a jury of their bigoted peers, despite the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses, Frinks organizes a media-friendly march to a rally in Raleigh, where the governor predictably refuses to meet the victim’s widow. All peaceful means having failed, targeted protests prevail as the town’s economically crucial tobacco warehouses are firebombed and Chavis exhorts fellow blacks to boycott local white-owned businesses.
The semiautobiographical book on which the film is based casts certain key moral scenes through the eyes of a dad-gazing child, the 10-year-old Tim Tyson (Gattlin Griffith), somewhat in the style of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But director Stuart (co-writer of action pics including “Die Hard” and “The Fugitive”) purportedly sought to create an anti-“Mockingbird” — that is, a film in which the salvation of black characters is not dependent on white chivalry. Unfortunately, after spending half the film setting up a dual activist black/white perspective, the pic fails to spell out any real relationship between the two storylines, even that of a failure to connect.
Nor does Stuart invest black action with any dramatic dynamism (despite some welcome but all too brief sampling of Isaac Hayes on an otherwise blandly triumphalist soundtrack), apparently terrified of condoning revolutionary violence. Parker’s Chavis, who in real life became head of the NAACP, is depicted in a respectful but charisma-deficient manner. While this chapter in American history deserves to be retold, the entire worthy endeavor proceeds like a bloodless, wide-eyed pageant.
Period reconstruction is spot on, but this fidelity merely makes “Blood” resemble a 1970s TV movie instead of one from 2010.