In adapting the Timothy Tyson’s memoir Blood Done Sign My Name, which details the events surrounding the racially charged murder of an African-American Vietnam veteran in North Carolina in 1970, writer-director Jeb Stuart seems to have sought the most banal and commonplace elements, rather than focusing on the details that might illuminate the past and the present. Stuart, whose writing credits include Die Hard and The Fugitive, splits the movie’s perspective, albeit not evenly, between budding activist Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), later an organizer of the Million Man March and currently Russell Simmons’ business partner, and Tyson’s father, Vernon (Rick Schroder), a white Methodist minister whose progressive views run him afoul of his congregation’s more conservative members.
Despite the relatively late date, Oxford, North Carolina is still a place where racial animosity is expressed, where a black man looking for a haircut in a white barbershop can be bluntly told, “No.” The murder of Henry “Dickie” Morrow (A.C. Sanford), sparked by comments misconstrued as a come-on to a white man’s wife, has chilling parallels to the lynching 15 years earlier of Emmett Till, suggesting that for all the progress made on the national front, there are places where time has stood horribly still. Tensions heighten as the case proceeds to trial, the flames fanned by a self-proclaimed “stoker man” (Afemo Omilami) who riles up the black community in hopes of bringing the conflict into the open. He gets his wish, although when Morrow’s service buddies start firebombing white-owned businesses, the situation quickly worsens.
Blood Done Sign My Name draws attention to a little-known chapter in the history of the civil-rights movement, but it doesn’t do much to pull that moment into the present, or to pull the audience into the past. In spite of the material’s regional origins, Stuart’s movie still feels like a Hollywood vision of the rural South, less syrupy than some but no less vague. The pat popular history of civil rights could certainly use some complication, but the movie’s villains and heroes are too cleanly sketched to provoke much beyond the itchiness of waiting for the class bell to ring.