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Sign of the times

Movies | Film uses a simmering small town to highlight a national struggle

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

In the South in 1970, change was slow in coming. The town of Oxford, N.C., had its traditions, inertia, and quiet discrimination that kept black people at the margins of society. Two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the African-American community of Oxford still struggled under de facto Jim Crow restrictions.

The movie Blood Done Sign My Name (PG-13) tells the true story of a murder and the fight for equality from the perspective of the child of a white Methodist minister. Rev. Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder) brings his family to Oxford to take over the Methodist church there. Racism is in the air they breathe, in the schoolyard, in the stores where they shop. The minister struggles to balance serving the spiritual needs of his flock as they marry, die, and battle the need to challenge racial assumptions.

At the same time as the Tyson family is settling in, Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), a black man, has returned from graduate school to his hometown. The son of a wealthy and educated family, he feels a great burden for his people. Dickie Marrow (A.C. Sanford), also a black man, has come home from serving in the Vietnam War to his wife and children. One fateful night, Dickie crosses paths with three angry white men. His murder, and the subsequent trial of the men, churns the already charged atmosphere of the town into a tornado of anger.

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Change comes to Oxford, N.C., but not through the methods that Rev. Tyson had wanted.

The movie, while not as epic in scale as some civil-rights films, does an excellent job showing how small choices, attitudes, and willful blindness can add up to large injustice as well as how difficult it can be to fight such ingrained societal ills.

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