The Civil Rights Movement As a Hallmark Special 

Blood-Done-Signed-My-Name.jpg

Blood Done Sign My Name
Directed by Jeb Stuart

As the source of so many of our ideas about justice and heroism, the Civil Rights Movement would seem like an ideal subject for tough, complex filmmaking. More often than not, though, cinema has reimagined our nation's racial history as a string of misty water-colored memories, and has shown less interest in examining unhealed wounds than in immortalizing an image of one big American kumbaya. First-time director Jeb Stuart's Blood Done Sign My Name travels a similar path, opening with the requisite archival footage of hippies, James Brown, and the moon landing, and interviews of smiling North Carolinians reminiscing about the good ol' days. When it launches into the first of its multiple intertwining narratives, one would be forgiven for fearing yet another tale of valiant whites a la Atticus Finch or the FBI agents in Mississippi Burning. Based on the autobiographical recollections and research of historian Timothy Tyson, the film frames the murder of a black Vietnam veteran in Oxford, North Carolina, and the riots and legal battles it gives rise to, with a portrait of Tyson's progressive white family trying to take a strong anti-racist stance in their segregated town.

The implication is all too familiar: racial violence is important only insofar as it occasions a white child's loss of innocence. While this view becomes slightly more nuanced as Tyson's father (Rick Schroder), a Methodist pastor, discovers that goodwill can take him only so far, Stuart stands in the way of any true insight with his Hallmark Channel aesthetics. Toggling back and forth between stereotypically pristine white neighborhoods and vibrant, soulful black hang-outs, the writer-director favors montages that are set to predictable song selections ("I'll Take You There," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around") and invariably culminate in bits of fortune-cookie wisdom ("Ain't nothin' gon' happen unless you make it happen"). Worst of all, racism is assigned to a trio of laughably unsubtle monstrosities, as if the film were absolving the more pervasive sins of social complacency that it initially sets out to critique. When the late, great John Hope Franklin makes a brief cameo in the film's final third, the audience is forced to ask why popular cinema so often avoids the work of writing rigorous history.

Opens February 19

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