"Two Towns of Jasper" is a movie directed by two long-time friends (since High School; 25 years), Whitney Dow and Marco Williams. Whitney is white, and Marco is black. The film (according to the directors) came about from the idea that there is no language to discuss race any more (in the US), and they wanted to discuss it. They decided to use the Jasper trials as a focal point to try to start such a discussion. Jasper, Texas is the location of a gruesome hate-crime where three white men chained a black man to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged him for miles. The directors spent a year on and off visiting Jasper darning the trials of the three convicted men to hear what locals thought about the whole thing. They wanted to capture how the to involved races reacted to the crime. Towards that end, Whitney headed an all-white crew to film the white citizens, and Marco headed an all black crew to film the black citizens. They expected -- and were almost certainly correct -- that responses would be less filtered if both communities felt they were talking to interviewers like themselves. After each director compiled their own one-sided films, they hired a 3rd party to help splice and edit the two sides into one movie.
"Two Towns of Jasper" will air on PBS's POV series on January 2nd, 2002 on most stations that carry the program. If anyone is interested, I ordered the directors by their last names solely because that is how I generally find credits of equal contributors. Early cuts of the film appeared in film fests, but the directors indicated that the showing I attended is meant to be the film's 'final' form -- and this post-fest form has already been shown in a variety of places. Note that at points, I will quote the movie, but I could not write fast enough to get the exact wording, so it is doubtful my quotes are exact.
Film Synopsis & Commentary:
The film starts with a white police officer (?sheriff?) commenting on the initial murder report. He reflects on what he remembers. Driving to the scene, he saw a long brownish tire mark. He figured this was going to be a real easy case to solve -- just follow the tire track to the perpetrator's home. Then, as he went on, he realized that it wasn't mud.... Without going into detail, he talks about how sick a crime this was, and how he had hoped a black person had done it.
The film switches to the black mortuary workers who were told to come pick up the body. They were told not to drive on the marked sections of the road -- that those bits were part of the crime scene. By then, investigators had outlined certain patches of the red-brown stain with white ?chalk or paint?. One of the mortuary workers figured out that the stain was a huge, massive blood smear, but the other didn't believe it. Finally, they pulled over to see for sure, and were horrified to discover that yes, it was blood. Blood and flesh; mixed and ground into the pavement. They also spoke of the location where the body had been slung through a ditch, and opined that the head came off there. It was hard to determine if that was accurate, but the two men were obviously shocked and disgusted. One commented that he couldn't believe how long the trail was, and how even as they drove to the body, he felt sure white people were responsible.
Despite the details hinted at in the opening sequence, the film manages to avoid sensationalism. It does try to convey the depravity of the crime to the audience -- to remind the viewer that racism is not just a theoretical debate, but an issue that can lead to grisly death -- but it does not show autopsy photos, or use voice-overs to tell the viewer what to think. It just lets both sides state what they will. Though I have not seen what the directors omitted, I expect they chose well.
We skip to the time of the first trial and see the town of Jasper where white regulars are entering past a sign saying that they are at the breakfast meeting of "Bubbas in Training". I kid you not. The sign really says "Bubbas in Training". One assumes they call themselves 'bubbas' with pride. The upshot of their breakfast chat is that they see the crime as an isolated incident of prison crime spilling into their non-racist town. Two of the accused are white supremacists recently released from prison. They also complain that the dead man, Mr. James Byrd, Jr., spent most of his time in jail. The white locals say Byrd shouldn't have been killed, but people should give the family money, either. They seem to think the ex-cons are the problem -- not the town.
Switch to a black beauty salon where women are getting their hair done. I believe the place was called "Unva's" The women here do not think the crime was an isolated incident, but an example of institutionalized racism. They point out that the blacks in Jasper did NOT rage nor burn things -- the implication being that they aren't trying to cause trouble now, either, but... they want to know why there's only one black person working at the bank? And what made the accused think that Jasper was a town where they could get away with such a ghastly crime?
The white D.A. talks about the previous records and jail affiliations (Confederate Knights of America) of the accused. He tells reports that on the eve of the murder, the boys were out drinking and looking for girls -- but they found Byrd, instead. He talks about the tracks showing a zig-zag pattern which seemed to indicate a specific desire to do damage, and stated, "There's no doubt in anybody's mind [they were] having fun." We see the tattoos of two of the accused: burning crosses, a small, hanging man, "KKK", and the like. It becomes harder to doubt a racial motivation for the crime when realizing these men deliberately marked their bodies with such imagery.
At a Catholic sermon, the (white) father tells the congregation, "Apparently, they're feeling wounds we _aren't_ feeling." At a couple different churches, we hear talk of the fence dividing the cemetery -- one side for blacks one side for whites. Back at Unva's a women comments that the fence is another example of racism in the town, and with exasperation she says that you can live your whole life fighting segregation just to be buried on the black side of the fence.
To contrast the religion and preaching, we meet Trent. At first, he seems simply annoyed at all the hoopla and touchy-feeliness that is cycling through town. He thinks the new town plan to take the fence out of the cemetery, and the prayer vigil about this issue is all posturing. He says it won't change how anyone thinks. Soon, we discover that Trent is recently out of prison, too. His tattoos have nordic themes (like Vikings), and "White Power".
Next, we learn that the coroner has determined Byrd was almost certainly alive while being dragged. People react with yet more horror. A sister of the victim is asked what she thinks (what a STUPID question), and refrains from fully venting -- just hints at her outrage. The bubbas are fine with giving the death penalty to the first accused (King), but complain that folks say, "We're sending a message", and they question what message is being sent.
When King is sentenced to Death by Lethal Injection, people (mistakenly) say that this is the "first time in four hundred years" that a white man got the death penalty for killing a black man.
There are many other details, and the film covers the other trials, but I'd rather not give everything away (despite 5 pages of notes on the remained that keep calling to me). I want to tell you about the slum/project of Jasper. I want to contrast "Rodeo Day" and "Martin Luther King, Jr. Day". I want to tell you everything about Trent. I want discuss the angry, drunken speak in the trailer -- the woman shouting support (in range of both sides) to the 3rd accused near the end of the film. I want to bring up all the little things that seem to speak volumes.
Instead, I will leave that for future viewers to determine for themselves. I will however, cover Q&A items. First: the directors let us know that when they started filming, the town was besieged by media, and getting interviews was initially difficult. The town was wary -- camera shy. Second: They thank ITVS for providing funding, and credit them with doing good for the world. The directors mentioned their thanks to ITVS repeatedly. The rest were random bits of interest.
Supposedly, the bubbas said more 'juicy' things that were edited out to make the views as representative of the larger community(ies) as possible. Trent had gone to prison at age 17, and got out at 30 -- shortly before encountering the film crew. Both directors feel he lived his entire adult life to that point; went through 12 years in just one. They didn't include dialog from Trent's wife because they thought it embarrassing (not in her views, but in her intelligence). Marco liked the subtlety of Trent.
Whitney explained that he and Marco had different agendas as they were putting their two films together. They had long nights arguing over what went in and what bits made which 'side' look weak. They each wanted telling bits in. They wanted both sides to look as fair as possible. They had to work to avoid ending scenes in such a way that the audience would favor one side or the other.
A viewer asked what white and black people could do to improve race relations in the USA. A director suggested spending three years making a film with a friend of the opposite race. They understand the suggestion is unworkable, but the point was that it won't be easy.
Later, one of the directors responded to question about who got what out of the film. The director talked about how the audience for the film is generally split into two groups: black community members, and white liberals. The director felt that the black viewers tended to see themselves and their own attitudes towards whites in the black side of the film, but that the white viewers tended to think that only THOSE people -- those texas-trash bigots, those ignorant bible-belters, those not-like-us-despite-skin-tone folks -- had closed minds about the world in general, and blacks in particular. The director felt that the typical white liberals mental response was akin to, "I'm better than the white people in the movie." The director felt that the typical liberal then dismissed the white side as 'wrong' without reflecting on they deal with similar views in their own lives. They felt that the typical liberal white does not pay attention to the institutionalized racism they witness and/or engage in. There was an expectation that most whites in the audience had been to at least one all-white dinner, party, or such where some of the exact views in the film were spoken out loud -- and that there may have been disagreement about points, but in the majority of cases no one complained about the topic.
In short, the directors wanted both sides to see themselves, but came away feeling that one side of viewer demographics was more likely to deal with the race issue as a problem caused by others rather than themselves. It seems that they brought their perception up in order to try and 'correct' the problem they perceived. They weren't scolding white viewers. They were offering their view in such a way that it encouraged one to reflect internally. They seemed sincerely interested in getting both sides to acknowledge that there IS a problem, and to acknowledge that each person has some stake in it -- that no one should feel free to claim it isn't their problem.
I'm probably more emphatic on this last bit than the directors were. I tried explaining it to a friend, and didn't do well. After my initial attempt to explain what the directors said, she asked questions akin to, "So how do YOU feel about paying for a movie, and then having its makers insult you? Doesn't that just make you sick? THEY don't know you." As a result, I am now trying to hammer in what I couldn't get her to see: heard in context, it did not sound insulting -- but I expect my feeble attempts to replicate the message in print are likely to insult someone.