Blood Done Sign My Name -- Film Review

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A little-known chapter of the civil rights era gets well-deserved exposure in this film based on Tim Tyson's best-selling book. Unfortunately, real-life events, especially when faithfully rendered, don't always make for good storytelling, and "Blood Done Sign My Name" suffers from an awkward, plodding structure that robs it of much of its dramatic effect. Add to that mediocre production values more suited to a television film and less-than-stellar performances, and you have results that are far more earnest than effective.

Set in 1970, the story centers on figures like Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder), a liberal-minded white minister of a North Carolina Methodist church. Attempting to further racial harmony through such gestures as inviting a notable black preacher to deliver a guest sermon, he finds the church leaders and congregation less than receptive.

His efforts are paralleled with that of Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), a black schoolteacher whose efforts to provide greater equality through methods like petitioning the town council to reinstall the basketball hoops in a local park frequented by blacks equally are stymied. (He would later go on to become the youngest-ever head of the NAACP).

The area's simmering racial tensions are inflamed when a black Vietnam veteran (A.C. Sanford) returns home, only to be brutally murdered by a white store owner (Nick Searcy) and his two sons after an innocuous encounter with a white woman.

The ensuing violence results in an intervention by the National Guard and the dispatching by the NAACP of Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami), a self-described "stoker" who organizes a peaceful march to the governor's office 50 miles away in which thousands eventually join.

Meanwhile, a sham trial featuring an all-white jury results in an acquittal for the killers, with frustrated blacks resorting to burning down the massive tobacco warehouses on which the local industry depends.

Making his directorial debut, screenwriter Jeb Stuart ("Die Hard," "The Fugitive") fails to tie the complex story's disparate strands together in coherent fashion, with the result that the film seems choppy and episodic, like an extended episode of the acclaimed "I'll Fly Away" television series.

With the exception of Omilami, who plays the colorful Frinks with a riveting mixture of humor and edginess, the performances range from predictable (Michael Rooker as a lawyer intent on getting the killers off) to bland (Parker, conveying little of Chavis' estimable charisma).

Opens: Friday, Feb. 19 (Paladin)
Production: Real Folk Prods.
Cast: Nate Parker, Rick Schroder, Afemo Omilami, Lela Rochon, Omar Benson Miller, Nick Searcy, Michael Rooker, Darrin DeWitt Henson, Gattlin Griffith
Director/screenwriter: Jeb Stuart
Producers: Mari Stuart, Mel Efros, Jeb Stuart, Robert K. Steel
Director of photography: Steve Mason
Editor: Toby Yates
Production designer: Sandy Veneziano
Costume designer: Mary Malin
Music: John Leftwich
Rated PG-12, 128 minutes
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