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Cinema in Focus: ‘Blood Done Sign My Name’

From book to film, it looks at the civil rights movement through the eyes of a child of faith

4 Stars — Profound

Everyone pays the price when prejudice persists. This is true not only of those against whom prejudice is expressed, but also for those who express it. The dehumanizing goes both ways.

This truth was experienced by the 10-year-old child of a Methodist pastor in 1970 when his father attempted to bring together the Christian whites and blacks in the town of Oxford, N.C. It cost him his church, but it cost others their lives as racism in America was confronted.

Based on the autobiography of this young preacher’s son, Tim Tyson (played as a child by Gattlin Griffith), Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive) wrote the screenplay and directed Blood Done Sign My Name.

Based on a master’s thesis he wrote while a student at Duke University in Durham, Tyson returned to Oxford and had firsthand conversations with the principals in the struggle that happened 40 years ago. 1970 was a year that not only changed young Tyson’s life, but the town and church of Oxford changed as well.

Assigned to the First Methodist Church of Oxford, the Rev. Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder) moved his family into the opulent parsonage of the privileged class of the white congregation. He and his wife, Martha (Susan Walters), had four children who were quickly immersed in the schools and culture of the Southern town.

Beginning his pastorate with a prayer expressing the love of Jesus Christ for all people of all races, the Rev. Tyson set out to put Christ’s love into action. But when he invited the Rev. Dr. Samuel Proctor (Gregory Allen Williams), president of the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and an acclaimed black preacher, to speak in his congregation, opposition to his leadership arose. Standing firm, Tyson explained that they couldn’t contain the years of injustice, anger and pain, and that soon the dam would break. He informed his church leaders that he was not waiting for some future generation to bring healing.

When a hot-headed Klansman and his two sons killed a black Vietnam War veteran, Henry “Dickie” Marrow (A.C. Sanford), even though eyewitnesses testified against them, the all-white jury found the white men not guilty. That injustice and the continuing prejudice of their city ignited changes that consumed the economic and moral strength of the town. This loss included removing the Tyson family from Oxford’s pastoral position.

The black leaders involved in the conflict included civil rights activists Ben Chavis (Nate Parker) and Golden Frinks (Aferno Omilarni), but there were many courageous people who decided to bring actual change to their already legally changed city.

The human penchant for racial, gender and class discrimination has plagued humanity from the beginning. People of faith have not consistently been instrumental in finding ways to end prejudice. But Christian faith is built on the reality that Jesus himself paid the ultimate price of his own blood when he was found to be on the “wrong side” of human prejudice.

When the church that bears his name has entered into such situations with God’s love, then healing has come and the old African-American spiritual proclaims it well: “Ain’t you glad, ain’t you glad, that the Blood done sign your name.”

Discussion:

» When we were in high school during the 1960s and attended predominantly black schools (Denny in Tulsa, Okla., and Hal in Oakland), we experienced firsthand the tensions of this tumultuous time. As Christians, we both had fathers who were a part of trying to bring racial reconciliation through the Free Methodist and Methodist churches of which they and we were a part. Like Tim Tyson, we were forever changed by these experiences and now worship together in a congregation that is working diligently to be a multicultural, multiracial church that knows the power of reconciliation through changed hearts brought about by the love of Jesus Christ. Where do you turn for help to face the prejudice of our world as well as the line drawn down the middle of your own heart?

» The anger expressed both by the Teel family who committed the murder and their fellow Klansman toward the black citizens in their hometown is hard to understand. What do you think is the source of such anger of the haves toward the have-nots?

» The solution to remove black participation in the predominantly white economy is one of the most powerful means of bringing change. How do you use your economic decisions to bring about justice and social change?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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