Jeb Stuart has written such screenplays as Die Hard and The Fugitive, but for his second directorial effort (his first being 1997’s Switchback) he has chosen to focus on the North Carolina civil rights movement of 1970. Blood Done Sign My Name tells the true story of the murder of Dickie Marrow, an African American Vietnam veteran who was murdered in his hometown of Oxford, NC in 1970. The three white men who killed him were found not guilty, which enraged Oxford’s African American community and led them to march on Raleigh, NC to meet with the governor, and eventually to declare a boycott on white-owned businesses in Oxford.
Featured in the film are Ben Chavis, a black schoolteacher who becomes a civil rights activist after the murder, and Vernon Tyson, a white Methodist minister who favors the cause of integration, but faces resistance from the town’s white leaders. Stuart took the time to answer MovieMaker’s questions about the state of Hollywood today, how films can impact race relations and why he has called his film the anti-To Kill a Mockingbird.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): Much of the focus on civil rights history has been on larger stories, those of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, that everybody knows something about. You chose to tell a less widely known story, and one that took place in the 1970s and not the 1960s. What led you to make the decision to focus on a more personal story?
JS: A couple of things. I felt like we had not had a movie that focused on the smaller heroes of the movement. Quite frankly, any story that had had been really focused on from a Hollywood stance was not really about the movement at all. It was really about good white people versus bad white people, with African Americans being props in the middle. Things like To Kill a Mockingbird, which is considered a classic civil rights story, and it’s really Gregory Peck versus the bad white people. Or Mississippi Burning, where two FBI agents come to Mississippi to solve a heinous civil rights crime, and in effect it’s really the good white people versus the bad white people. Most people who know anything about the civil rights movement would realize that the FBI really wasn’t in the business of helping the movement at all. So my feeling was that the film needed to be authentic.
By moving it to the 1970s we were also at a different stage, where a lot of black returning Vietnam vets had a different approach of the ideas of civil liberties and freedoms, and also had been trained to be experts in warfare, and it was a very different time period. Martin Luther King was now dead, Malcolm X was dead; the movement had taken a different turn. I don’t want to say a more violent turn; I think it was a more proactive black story. Hollywood loves to think of the ‘60s as being whites and blacks linking their elbows arm in arm and marching together. This was a different time period. Those things drew me to the story.
MM: You’ve called you film the anti-To Kill a Mockingbird, because in that story the white lawyer swoops in to save the day while in Blood Done Sign My Name the black characters, Ben Chavis included, are more self-sufficient. Why do you think the story of the white character saving the day exists so much in Hollywood now?
JS: I want to look at the economics of the situation. There is a larger white audience in America than black. As such, Hollywood tends to make our heroes white, as opposed to African American, in these types of stories. I think that one of the things that drew me to Blood Done Sign My Name is that there are heroes of all colors. It is important to tell the story of Ben Chavis, who marched his children out of the classroom to protest the murder and then lost his job for doing it. Then he gained a vocation; for the rest of his life he’s been a very powerful force for civil rights in this country [Chavis later became the youngest ever CEO of the NAACP]. Most people don’t even know that story, so it was important to me to find some strength in telling that particular story.
MM: Since the time period in which your movie took place, depending on who you discuss the issue with, we’ve made either a lot of progress or some or not much at all in terms of race relations. Do you think that film as a medium can help make things better in terms of race relations in this country?
JS: Oh, I definitely do. I think that there’s no doubt that we have made gigantic strides in terms of race relations since 1970. I mean, it’s almost too easy to say we’ve put an African American in the White House. But from the movie side of this, I don’t know if we’ve made a whole lot of progress. We have a lot more African American actors than we had 40 years ago, but can any of those actors besides Will Smith and Denzel Washington open a big action movie? I know a lot of them can, it’s just that I’m not quite sure Hollywood’s ready to put a big $70 million price tag on a movie that has an African American lead. Far be it from me to say what Hollywood can and can’t do, but I’m not seeing a whole lot of evidence of that, so I guess that just sort of leads me to anecdotally think that we haven’t made as much progress as we think we have.
MM: No, I think you’re right, I don’t think they’ve taken the chance. Like you said, it’s a money game in Hollywood.
JS: It’s a money game and the numbers prove that it’s very difficult to open movies internationally with an African American lead, and that may be just because we don’t try hard enough. You and I don’t have to look far each year to say ‘This film should not have made any money, should not have found an audience, but it was a beautiful film and look how well it did.’ Everybody loves movies that catch them by surprise and take the story off into a different area, and it’s original and fresh. My point is, I think a movie with an Asian lead or an African American lead that has a great story will be just as accepted as any other movie.
MM: One of the things I was curious about when I was watching the film is that at the beginning of the film and the end you featured some real-life witnesses of the period talking about the impact of the trial and the boycott. What made you decide to bookend your film in that way?
JS: One of the things I was concerned about was bringing an audience up to speed very quickly to a different time period. I didn’t want the audience to suddenly say “Oh, we’re in 1963.” I think it’s very difficult to draw the distinctions between ‘63 and 1970. There’s a seven-year difference and an awful lot of history passed by rapidly. I mean it’s the difference between 1925 and the heart of the roaring ’20s, and 1932 and the depths of the Depression. If a film student saw two different films from those periods, they’d think “Good grief, there’s only seven years of difference.” It’s almost the same thing between ‘63 and ‘70. So I was trying to get an audience up to speed. Also by showing real people who are in their early 50s and late 40s, some of them a little older, you’re showing that all those people are within our generation or only a generation away from anybody who is watching the movie.
MM: I think it’s a good point to be made, because the history itself isn’t that remote.
JS: No, it’s not. And while we think we’ve made tremendous progress, we can point to a million different times in our history where progress has rapidly eroded, even in North Carolina. Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 was the most integrated city in the United States, it was one of the top cities in the United States in terms of population, it had a mixed city council, in it both blacks and whites, four or five black newspapers, and it was just a thriving integrated metropolis. And then in 1898 there was a literally a coup d’etat where they went and murdered many of the black leaders and took over all the black businesses, and bodies were thrown into the Cape Fear River. Blacks were chased into the swamps, and the whites took over the town. From that point on it was not an integrated city. It just goes to show you that the blacks within that community thought they had come a long way from slavery in 38 years, and suddenly everything had been taken away. We make lots of progress, and then if we don’t keep up the progress we’ve doomed to repeat a lot of stuff.
MM: Tim Tyson, who wrote the book on which the movie was based, is the son of a white Methodist minister, and you yourself are the son of a white Presbyterian minister. You also grew up in North Carolina, where the story takes place. Do you feel that the personal connection to the subject matter gave you a unique take on the story?
JS: Without a doubt. A large part of this audience is folks from the south, people who have grown up in the same sort of environment that I have, and I thought it was a very interesting thing to explore. I get paid a lot of money in Hollywood to come in and put characters into a difficult bind, so to speak. I don’t mean to be flip about it, but sometimes people just say “Give them a divorce to work on” or “Make one of them an alcoholic” or something like that. But the idea of a minister in 1970 who is caught between doing what he feels like he’s chosen to do as a minister of god, and as a father who really had another job of just keeping a job and putting bread on the table, not losing his employment. That’s a really great vice to put a character in, and I was kind of drawn to that, and that was definitely the character my father was at that particular time.
MM: What do you want people who see Blood Done Sign My Name to take away from the movie? What impact would you ideally like it to have?
JS: I think it’s an inspirational film about standing up and doing the right thing, whether that is taking an unpopular stand when you know things are not right. It’s a story of courage.
Blood Done Sign My Name is on DVD and Blu-Ray now. Visit http://www.blooddonesignmynamethemovie.com for more information.