Blood Done Sign My Name showcases Benjamin Chavis' legacy

Film champions civil rights leader, but falls short of cinematic expectations

In 1970, the murder of African-American Henry Marrow on the streets of Oxford, N.C., tragically evoked the brutal deaths of Emmett Till and others in the Jim Crow South. The fallout of the Marrow killing, and the acquittal of accused killers Robert and Larry Teel, proved unexpectedly explosive. Black citizens, including many Vietnam veterans, marched, rioted and in some cases, committed acts of arson that cost an estimated $1 million in property damage in the tobacco town.

Oxford native, budding Civil Rights activist and future NAACP President Benjamin Chavis recalls his hometown protests as unprecedented. "There had been a lot of riots in the late 1960s, but not in the South. The riots were in the urban Northeast and Midwest, and on the West Coast. And most of the riots had been in urban areas. Who ever heard of a rural riot?" Chavis says.

The new film Blood Done Sign My Name sheds light on a neglected episode from the Southern Civil Rights era, dramatizing the Marrow case and the contributions of Chavis and others as crusaders for equal justice. Based on the nonfiction book by Tim Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name primarily follows the point of view of the author's father, liberal Methodist minister Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder) and Chavis (Nate Parker), at the time a young schoolteacher and restaurateur. Chavis praises the film's accuracy, but though Blood Done Sign My Name skirts the pitfalls of most films about the Civil Rights era, it slips into new ones.

A depressing majority of films about the Civil Rights Movement and the fight against apartheid focus on the struggles of noble white folks to win rights for people of color. In Blood Done Sign My Name, saintly Rev. Tyson shares the spotlight with Chavis. Tyson attempts to nudge his openly bigoted congregation toward a more tolerant attitude, while Chavis teaches young people about progressive concepts such as student unions. Chavis' formative years and early protest work in Oxford set the stage for his subsequent career, which included 40 arrests and directing activities and organizations such as the Million Man March and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

Chavis appreciates Parker's performance as his younger self. "Watching Nate, I thought, 'Wow, this guy plays me better than me,'" he says. Nevertheless, the fictional Chavis isn't as interesting as the real thing. Blood neglects to mention that as a youth organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the mid-1960s, Chavis worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "He was a great man – not only a great preacher, and a great orator, but a great organizer. I remember Dr. King asking everyone to always make sure to be responsible for the people you lead. Being a leader, you have to have the care and concern for those who will follow you. He was one of my role models in life."

Blood Done Sign My Name admirably avoids Hollywood's tendency to give too much credit to its central characters, but long stretches of the film consign Tyson and Chavis to the sidelines, particularly during the Teel trial. Perhaps a more subtle, effective film would have the texture of one of Robert Altman's ensemble pieces like Nashville.

Blood benefits, though, from not stereotyping the town's racist legacy. Chavis points out, "This is the first movie that I've seen where you see a scene not just of a cross burning, but you hear a chant of the liturgy of the Klan. You hear them lighting the cross in the name of Jesus, and realize that the people in the Klan also have a sense of religion. You can't change a situation if you don't understand it, and I hope this movie will provoke greater inquiry so we get better understanding of what makes people prejudiced, what makes people have racial fears, and how you overcome those fears."

In Chavis' biggest scenes in the movie, he harnesses his class's outrage at the Marrow murder and leads the students out of school to attend one of the case's legal hearings. The film shows no consequences of the event, but in reality, "They fired me. ... I thought it was very important, as a schoolteacher, to not only teach in the classroom, but teach in the community. I still hear from those young people who've grown up and say that leaving school that day, going to the courthouse, helped change their lives in a positive way."

Likewise, the last major sequence for Chavis' character shows the young organizer announcing an African-American boycott of Oxford, but the film neglects to reveal the outcome. "The boycott was very successful. Oxford's never been the same. At the time of the film, the schools were still segregated. It was illegal, but it was still happening. So after the boycott the schools were desegregated, and blacks were allowed to get jobs in downtown businesses, particularly banks. After the boycott, blacks were hired in the fire department and the police department. After the boycott, they even hired an African-American to be the dispatcher of the police department. It was a total transformation, but if it hadn't been for the tragic murder of Henry Marrow, the boycott would never have happened."

Chavis suspects that the relative historical obscurity of the events in Oxford stems from a shift in the media coverage at the time. "The media sort of changed its mind about how they were going to report things. After the riots of 1968 in the wake of Dr. King's death, there was an attempt to repress not just elements of the Civil Rights Movement, but to repress public dissent. In the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, the late '50s and early '60s, the media was almost like an ally of the Civil Rights Movement. We wanted the media to come show these pictures to the rest of the world. After Dr. King's death, President Nixon was in the White House by 1970, and there's this law and order campaign going on. So it was much more difficult in the '70s to organize, to stage marches."

The film ends with Chavis and the Tyson family going their separate ways, without revealing that, in fact, they all moved to Wilmington, N.C., the following year. Chavis spent most of the 1970s in jail as a member of the Wilmington 10 following efforts to desegregate the city's schools. Chavis hopes to complete and publish a memoir of the experiences in time for the Wilmington 10 case's 40th anniversary in 2011. "The Wilmington 10 will be the sequel to Blood Done Sign My Name," he says, suggesting that he's got his eyes on a different kind of prize.