Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground…
…Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…
Hebrews 11:32-38 & 12:1-2
Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The Hebrew prophet’s pictorial poem of shalom is similar to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of racial harmony in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. However in 1970 in the small town of Oxford, N.C., the setting of director/writer Jeb Stuart’s docudrama, there is little trace of either vision. Dr. King has been dead for two years, and even the small stride forward of the 1964 Civil Rights Act has changed nothing in this little tobacco warehouse center north of Raleigh. The film, based on the book by Duke University Professor Timothy B. Tyson, chronicles how change finally did upend things in the town, change brought about when enough people became galvanized by the “blood that done sign my name,” shed by one of the town’s murdered black citizens.
There are two stories woven throughout the film, one of a white man, and one of a black man, each of which provides us with a view of the racial views of their peers. Now before you say. “There Hollywood goes again, thinking they have to start with a white guy in order to draw an audience to the story of oppressed blacks,” let me point out that the book’s author Timothy B. Tyson lived part of the story. He was the 10-year-old son of the liberal white minister Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder), who, at the beginning of the film, is driving into town with his wife Martha (Susan Walters) and their four children to start his new pastoral assignment. Across town at about the same time, the black Ben Chavis (Nate Parker) has returned to his hometown to teach English at his all-black high school. It might be 1970, 16 years after the Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling, but Oxford is as racially segregated as it was when the Jim Crow laws were passed in the decades following Reconstruction. All children still attend separate schools; blacks must buy their movie tickets and enter by a side door and sit in the balcony; their money is welcome in the stores, but they can work in them only if they push a broom; and in two scenes we see that a white barber will not cut a black’s hair, and a white grocery store owner sells goods at jacked-up prices, telling one upset woman that she can walk the distance to a store in another town if she wants the item at the cheaper price. Optimists might point out that the town has added an African American to the police force, but everyone knows that he is not permitted to ticket or arrest a white man.
There are brief shots of Rev. Tyson going about his pastoral duties as he settles into his new life, and one memorable scene in which he visits a shut-in that sets the stage for what will follow. The elderly woman tells him that she has seen a lot of pastors come and go, and that they all fell into two groups—priests or prophets. “The priests told us the comforting things we wanted to hear. The prophets challenged us with the difficult things we needed to hear. Which one are you?” He replies, “I try to be a little bit of both.” She shows her concern in her reply that in these times he will find it hard to be both. (Would that all ministers had such members willing to speak their minds so honestly to them.)
Rev. Tyson soon finds the lady’s words confirmed. He raises his congregation’s eyebrows when he preaches that everyone is equal, and direct opposition arises when, without consulting his board, he extends an invitation to Dr. Samuel Proctor, president of the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, to speak on a Sunday morning. This struck me at first as being very naïve on his part, though we do see that he has cultivated at least one church member as a strong supporter. When the disgruntled church board gathers in an emergency meeting to challenge his invitation, the Reverend faces them down He points out to them that as pastor of the church he does indeed have the authority to invite any speaker he wants—he opens the Methodist Book of Discipline as he points to the section he is quoting. When he assumes the pulpit on Sunday Dr. Proctor proves more astute than his host. Knowing he would be facing many hostile members, the guest begins his sermon with a humorous football story that gets the congregation laughing. (There is a funny shot of one of the nervous board members looking around first before laughing himself, the man apparently afraid to be the first to enjoy the humor of the story told by a black man.)
At the black high school Ben Chavis quickly earns the respect of his English Class students when he affirms the report that they had heard that he knew Stokely Carmichael. They soon learn that he wants them to think for themselves and stand up for what is right. Chavis’s family is well off, his widowed mother living in a large house filled at mealtimes with family. During his off-hours Chavis decides to refurbish and re-open his deceased father’s old diner, which, when finished, quickly becomes one of the few places where African Americans can eat, talk, and dance with no harassment from whites. Chavis also soon learns that the usual means of bringing about change are blocked when he and his students bring their grievance to a town meeting, and the officials pull a clumsy maneuver that prevents the board from even bringing up and voting on their concern. All that the blacks were asking was that the hoops missing from the basketball court of the city park be restored. This might seem to be a paltry request—until you recall that they had been removed because blacks were using the park too much.
One scene between Rev. Tyson and young Tim (Gattlin Griffith) at first seemed a bit artificially over-dramatized until I remembered that the film was based on the grown-up Tim’s memoir. The father takes his boys on a swimming trek into the country, but instead of returning home at dusk, he leads them to a cluster of large rocks. They crouch down and watch in a green field a group of whites getting out of their cars. As the women carry picnic baskets and blankets and the children play, the men slowly erect a huge cross that is covered with burlap. Tim stands up and says eagerly, “It’s a revival!” His father, pulling him down, assures him that it is not. The white children play games, and then, led by a man in a black robe, the other men in white robes and hoods walk through the crowd to pick up torches. Darkness has fallen as each man intones “The Light of Jesus,” receiving a torch. The crowd responds, “The Light of Christ.” The litany continues as the torch-bearing Klansmen form a circle around the cross. The liturgy includes many references to God, Christ, and purity in a dark world. The wide-eyed Tim, becoming fearful as the cross is set ablaze, asks that they leave. They do so just as one of the Klansmen, having heard the boy, sets out to search for the intruders. Thus Tim learns that the racial hatred he encounters at school is but a reflection of that of his classmates’ elders.
Matters are brought to the boiling point when Ben Chavis’s cousin, Henry “Dickie” Marrow (A. C. Sanford), a soldier who has just returned from Vietnam, is brutally murdered at nighttime when he had gone looking for a friend plus a coke for a thirsty neighbor. White owner Robert Teel (Nick Searcy) is inside his store when he hears his married son angrily accosting Marrow with a baseball bat. The son had mistakenly thought Marrow had said something inappropriate to his wife. The elder Teel is armed with a shotgun, and one of the two sons that run out with him has a rifle. Not only is the hapless Marrow wounded by the shotgun blast, but the three whites brutally kick and strike him with their fists, feet, and guns as he pleads for his life. The son with a rifle shoots the downed man in the head. There are witnesses, but they are black, and very fearful.
At the graveside service for Marrow, the outsider Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami) arrives and charms his way past the line of state troopers gathered to keep such persons as he away. Frinks, who deserves a movie all to himself, was a national figure in the civil rights movement, sent to Oxford after Chavis’s mother had telephoned Ralph Abernathy to send help in organizing the blacks. His fiery graveside talk arouses the people so much that they form a slogan-chanting procession when they leave the cemetery. Later, when the people gather at the Chavis restaurant, Ben Chavis asks Frinks what he plans to do next, to which the response is a correction, not “I” but “we.” To the puzzlement of all, Frinks asks that they go find and bring to him a mule.
It turns out that the mule is to pull an old wagon on which the widowed Mrs. Marrow and her young daughters will ride while sitting upon a draped coffin. The people have agreed to stage a march on the capitol some fifty miles away to protest to the governor the unjust treatment of blacks. The group starts out with just 70 marchers, but by the time they reach Raleigh their number has grown to about a thousand. However, the governor refuses to meet with Marrow’s widow, which leaves Chavis almost as mad at Frinks as at the absent politician. Frinks tells him that he did not promise a meeting, only that he would call the governor and ask for one, which he did. He describes his role as being that of a stoker, one who stokes the fires, in this case of resentment, so that the flames of resistance will rise up and galvanize the communities into which he is sent. The Oxford blacks are now aroused and organized, and it will be up to Chavis and them to finish the battle that he has helped start. There is another Southern community in a racial crisis needing his leadership.
Back in Oxford the blacks react with such fury to the governor’s refusal to meet with Mrs. Marrow that a group of younger ones sneak out at night and hurl Molotov cocktails at two of the large tobacco storage warehouses, the buildings and their contents going up in fire and smoke. Chavis watches in silence with other older blacks the conflagration. On the other side of town the Tyson family gaze at the horizon, lit up by the raging inferno. When Tim asks if it will come here, his father says no, though he well knows that an inferno of another order will indeed engulf them.
The trial of the killers is a very dramatic one, the whites lying about the circumstances of the killing. However, the evidence is overwhelming, and the argument for their guilt by the black associate prosecutor—surely a novelty in that town—is persuasive. There is also a surprising revelation concerning the second son that further upsets the blacks in the courtroom audience. Despite all of the evidence, the jury votes unanimously for acquittal.
As the jury’s pronouncement is read the camera cuts back and forth between Rev. Tyson in the Methodist sanctuary praying for forgiveness and Ben Chavis in his church raising provocative questions about the status quo, and then suggesting to the people that they spend their money outside of Oxford. This folding together of time and incidents is obviously dramatic license. This time the reaction of the blacks, while still angry, is more measured and bound to achieve better results than burning down buildings. What follows is telescoped by blacks describing the effectiveness of their boycott. But we also see the Methodist board calling Rev. Tyson into a meeting and then…
During the final few minutes of the film several people talk about spending their money out of town rather than at the local stores owned by racists who mistreat them. As in many other towns in the Jim Crow South, Mammon speaks louder than faith or morality. A much reduced town (the destruction of the tobacco warehouses also contributing to the local decline) gives in eventually to the demands of the boycotters, but neither Tyson nor Chavis are around to enjoy the fruits of victory. Just as the film began with the Tyson family in their car towing a trailer containing their possessions, so we see them again, this time heading out of town the father trying to convince little Tim that they were not “run out of town.” According to Roger Ebert’s review, Rev. Tyson went on to pastor a series of larger churches, one of them an integrated church, whereas Ben Chavis left town for full time civil rights work, eventually becoming the youngest head ever of the N.A.A.C.P. and organizer of the Million Man March on Washington.
Thus the film does not follow the usual arc of a brave man emerging triumphant. Nor does Vernon Tyson and Ben Chavis meet, as I kept expecting them to. This made me realize what a huge wall Jim Crow had erected, in that two such men with similar values and agendas living in the same town did not meet personally. Though the minister and the future civil rights leader did attend Henry Marrow’s graveside service, they exchanged no greetings. Following the murder, the role of the minister is reduced to that of spectator rather than leader, though I suspect he must have taken some heat for attending the service and then the trial and approving the march on Raleigh. He might not have convinced many of his parishioners about the equality of the races, but his impact on his youngest son was immense, the boy now being Professor Timothy B. Tyson, a scholar of African-American history.
To shift from the story, I want to report that the acting is fine, Rick Schroder and Nate Parker never overly dramatic, exuding a quiet strength that enables them to stand up for their beliefs. Afemo Omilami as Golden Frinks dominates every scene he is in. We can readily understand why this fiery speaker could stir a crowd to action. We also see that his moving from place to place provides so little opportunity to get to really know people that he can take an almost manipulative approach to them. As he acknowledges, he is no Martin Luther King, but a stoker who does his job and moves on. In addition to the fine acting, John Leftwich’s musical score, incorporating numerous gospel and civil rights songs sung by powerful black soloists and choirs, contributes much to the effectiveness of the film.
The film’s name comes from a stirring speech that Golden Frinks makes at the state house in Raleigh, “We will not stop until we have justice. No! Blood has done signed our name! The blood of Martin Luther King…the blood of Medgar Evers…the blood of Malcolm X…the blood of Dickie Marrows brought us here today.” His speech, with its litany-like reference to civil rights martyrs calls to mind the stirring recitation of the great men and women of faith listed near the end of the Epistle to the Hebrews. In a way this entire, under appreciated, film does the same. The film has its faults, but so much of it is so powerful, as well as informative of some little known modern heroes of the faith, that it deserves more than the meager attention it received when released in 2010. Again, we can be thankful for DVD and streaming video formats that allow it to reach a larger audience. I hope that you will not only see and use it in your own group or church, but also tell others about it—perhaps by sending them this review. You can be certain that there will be lots of discussion questions attached to it when it appears in the February issue.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2015 issue of VP.