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Tim Tyson's celebrated memoir comes to the big screen 

Son of the South

Nate Parker as Ben Chavis in "Blood Done Sign My Name"

Photo courtesy of Paladin Films

Nate Parker as Ben Chavis in "Blood Done Sign My Name"

Blood Done Sign My Name opens Friday in select theaters

The 1970 murder of Henry "Dickie" Marrow and the protests and resistance that flowed out of it into the streets of Oxford, N.C., and the rest of the state, still packs a wallop 40 years later.

Blood Done Sign My Name is based on the acclaimed book by Tim Tyson, currently a research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. As an 11-year-old in Oxford, Tyson witnessed the turbulent aftermath of Marrow's death. Tim's father, Rev. Vernon Tyson, was a Methodist minister in Oxford whose efforts to foster racial integration from the pulpit were met with strong resistance by parishioners and townsfolk alike. Writer-director Jeb Stuart, whose screenplay credits include Die Hard and The Fugitive, shot the film throughout his native state, including Shelby, Gastonia and Statesville (but not Oxford, interestingly). Stuart retools Tyson's sweeping history into a two-part narrative. The first half is more personal, focusing on Rev. Tyson (played by Rick Schroder) and his family's move to Oxford; the second half is given over to an account of Marrow's murder, the trial and the subsequent unrest.

Stuart's focus on the self-help measures employed by Oxford's African-American citizenry, led by young Ben Chavis (Nate Parker, seen in The Great Debaters), a local businessman and future civil rights activist, wisely eschews the specter of the "white benefactor" that is so ubiquitous in similarly themed Hollywood cinema. Yet it makes for a disjointed screenplay in which Tyson—the near-exclusive subject of the film's opening act—spends the rest of the film as a virtual spectator.

The cast varies in quality—three of them are mined from the set of One Tree Hill, while the mere presence of Michael Rooker (Mississippi Burning; Rosewood) in films of this sort is clichéd. Still, the actors wisely don't overcook their roles, particularly Schroder and Parker, a young star in the making. Many real-life participants make cameos, including both Tysons, along with the late historian John Hope Franklin.

Still, for all its explosive content, Stuart's directorial presentation is as rudimentary as a made-for-TV movie, down to John Leftwich's stock musical score. All the de rigueur genre tropes—the Klan rally, the racist cops, the sporadic N-word—pop up on cue.

During a protest march on Raleigh, black activist Goldie Frinks (Afemo Omilami) tells an impatient Chavis, "You think Dickie Marrow's murder is the worst civil rights lynching ever? It doesn't even come close to the things I've seen." The moment is meant to lend context to this episode's place in the broader civil rights struggle, but it also reinforces that Blood Done Sign My Name does little to distinguish itself from other films about the struggle to overcome racism in the South—except perhaps for Tar Heel moviegoers who can glean meaning from a line like "Oxford is not like Biscoe; they're more set in their ways."

Author Tim Tyson will be in attendance at the Chelsea Theater's 6:30 p.m. screening this Sunday and will answer questions afterward.

  • Many real-life participants make cameos, including both Tysons, along with the late historian John Hope Franklin.

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