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United States

Journal memfree's Journal: Racism in US as seen in "Two Towns of Jasper" 8

"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.

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Racism in US as seen in "Two Towns of Jasper"

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  • a lot of the time i think life is really good. people can be so wonderful and beautiful.

    then other times (like remembering this crime against humanity) i am reminded of how stupid and cruel people can be. i get all cynical and decide i don't like people. but i like to think there is hope for us. i like to think we'll learn to play nice with each other.
    • Well...the directors seemed to feel that if we are ever going to play nice with each other, we'll first have to actually PLAY with each other. That gets hard because whites and blacks are often raised in different cultures. Even if they live nearby, they aren't always likely to mix -- or to do so well.

      Example difference: I (a white female) remember walking into a liquor mid-day Dec. 31st with a black male friend. As soon as we entered, an employee was in my friend's face. The employee was bristling with suspicion and asking what he wanted. I, as the white female, was ignored. Friend asked for champagne, and was escorted to the selection, then to the cash register and door. Browsing was not an option.

      I _know_ I'd far better treatment on my own. My friend was brought up in a world where that was not unexpected. For me, it was alien, and I was too shocked to condemn it. With disgrace, I admit I did nothing. It had been a while since I'd had to face the differences between white and black America. It was a rude reminder that there are barriers in our culture -- and surely more rude for my friend than for me.

      So... while no 'good' in the wake of the crime mitigates the evil, I think looking for good in the aftermath is OK if it keeps us from more hate. The event did bring some awareness to some people. It spawned a good film. It may have led to a *slightly* better prison system in Texas. The town as a whole seemed to take a long look at itself, and tried to make changes. They believed themselves to be tolerant before the crime, but worked harder to ensure equality afterwards. The majority of people in the film are not 'bad'. Three men acted with evil cruelty, and an entire town responded in horror. It is hard to hate the majority when they side with you in outrage.

      It is worth mentioning that even before the crime, Jasper elected a black mayor, and the juries DID convict the three that killed Byrd.

      As far as hate goes: for my part, I tend to hate people for being close minded or for being idiots. I don't hate populations for the ghastly crimes of individuals (as long as the population takes action against the criminals). I mind when people ignorantly defend a point solely because it is one item in an idealogy they favor -- despite evidence that the particular item is misguided.

      Honestly, I even sided my (very long) summary somewhat in favor of the 'black' argument. This is largely because the 'white' side had less memorable foundation in the earlier part of the movie, but I cannot discount that it is also because I absolutely want to make sure I'm giving time for views with which I have less familiarity.
      • As far as hate goes: for my part, I tend to hate people for being close minded or for being idiots.

        strange you would list me as a friend, then ;)

        i didn't mean playing nice just in terms of race, but all sorts of things, economics, class, beliefs, or just being nice to people. it isn't that difficult to be nice to (most) people that you meet (or at least be civil). i also avoided the word hate. i used the phrase "don't like." i usually like individuals, but don't always like the sum of the parts.

        but i agree on your points of getting people to mingle. if you know people of another race personally, it is much easier to understand they are just as human as you are. playing together at all would be a help in that regard.
  • I married a white woman. My wife happened to be from the south. She lived with me on the Tundra for ten years before we left Alaska in search of work. When we talk about home now we talk about Alaska.

    We went to her family's home in North Carolina. Her family came from the hills near Tennessee. A family that traced it's American heritage back to the Pilgrims and claimed relation to Presidents. The family is spread now over Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee.

    To me that world seemed as a distant fantasy land. As strange and odd as Madagascar or Bolivia. The people were profoundly different and yet the same as the new peoples of Alaska. I began to realise that I wasn't really "American" either.

    The first thing my Mother in law had communicated about me to my in-laws on the back of a photograph was: "At least he's not Black." Obviously I was never supposed to see that written on the back of the photo in my Grandmother-in-laws little apartment. I suspect many more murmurs about me went unheard behind my back over the years.

    We happened to visit Florida during "Martain Luther King" day one time. I sat appalled as my Father-In-Law riding about in his truck with his new wife said just under his breath, "Happy Day you Monkeys." He's the kind of fella that refers to jails as "Monkey Cages" and his work as a prison guard as "Feeding the Monkeys."

    My Step-Mother-in-Law appologized for him once saying: "He was never so bad before he started working in the prison." She concluded it was the influence of his new racist boss that had turned him so. He related to me about being passed over for promotion and seeing a less qualified Black man get the job instead. I didn't try to explain about correcting long standing social biases and anomalies.

    An uncle trying to help me with my very young son (who was whining rather impressively): "We could go to a play ground around here. There's one the Blacks play in. Would he like that better than the one by our house?" Oddly motivated out of the actual desire to be helpful... no malace I could tell. I do not hate.

    One morning when visiting my wife's grandmother. That sweet old lady said, "You know. I think of you as white. I can't think of you... you know... I'm glad my grand-daughter has you for a husband." I thanked her, everyone in this world is afflicted with race. White, Black, whatever the race everyone is afflicted with it and the history that goes with it. I suppose the best we can do is to understand each other's afflictions.

    All told I spent two years with them. I was made an "honorary white person" by my uncle-in-law. Others managed to be a little more tactful. Time and patience win the day. I didn't do anything other than live in front of them.

    I see that there is hope for us yet. Let families live together. Let them get to know each other. Be slow to acknowledge an insult and quick to forgive. Perhaps in time we can change.

    500 years ago whites invaded the home land of my ancestors and held it as their own. They pushed the people into the forests fighting spears with guns. 500 years ago my ancestors ate the flesh of their enemies to gain their enemies' strength. 500 years ago there was no United States of America.

    Perhaps today we will learn to be different. We have another sunrise.
    • I don't think my ex-husband ever had to deal with that. I was the white wife, and married a Japanese American. He grew up pretty 'white' in terms of school and friends, but his mom was VERY Japanese, and so was his home life.

      His mother did not seem to like my over-the-top white American-ness, and I could not appease her. On my ex's suggestion I tried to be more servile, and respectful of my elders when in her presense, but it did not help. I didn't know how to make her recipies, I didn't place my chopsticks properly, I brought her the wrong presents for holidays -- I could do no good in her eyes.

      She threatened to disown my ex if we married, and on the day of our wedding, we still weren't sure if she was going to show up or not. Her friends (also Japanese) convinced her that keeping her one and only son was more important than whatever happened with his wife, so she did show up -- with my ex's father, of course; he followed his wife's lead on such matters.

      My family loved my husband. When I say "family", I generally mean my divorced parents (I never see much of my extended family). My parents are pretty damn liberal, and a 'serious' boy of any ethnicity was a huge improvement over the leather clad, spiked haired, questionably gendered, one-night-stands that I'd brought by in my teens (they weren't all one-night-stands, my gay and bi friends were pretty constant).

      We spent most holidays at my dad's home because it was close, (we were in Fairbanks, and my in-laws were in Anchorage). No one ever nominated my ex an 'honorary' white guy.

      We divorced when my ex got a job in Anchorage, and insisted we live with his mother. After she called me several times to tell me the rules of her house (such as: I was not allowed to argue in her house) I refused to go. I told him I'd be at *my* mother's until he found a place --any place -- outside his mom's house. He didn't, and I wouldn't live there, so that was that. Despite his claims that I didn't respect his family, I truly did -- I just couldn't _live_ with them full time. I was approaching 30, and could not handle the idea of being a permanant guest in a home where I was not wanted -- of not having *any* place where I could relax.
      • oops. My above post went WAY off topic.

        Original point: my family didn't much notice my ex's race.

        Off-topic point: my mother-in-law and I had a personality clash -- most of which had nothing to do with race. It was mostly from her expectation of how a young woman should behave versus how *I* behaved.
        • oops. My above post went WAY off topic.

          I strongly disagree.

          Race is an affliction all people must endure and the conflicts only occur when there is contact between them. Some people feel the way to solve racial problems is to remove the contacts between the races.

          It is the interracial contact between coworkers, friends, and spouses that creates the conflict and creates the solutions to that conflict. Especially in places like Jasper. At least I hope that the meaningful contacts people make can undo the objectification of the "others".

          It's quite an overwhelming thing when you really try to hold it in your head: Every single person on the planet is a person, just like you, feeling just like you. Every person is a person is a very hard idea to deal with and that is why we have uniforms, stereotypes, and racism.

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