Saturday, February 13, 2010

Blood Done Sign My Name -- Out in Film!

Paul Harvey

Congratulations to Tim Tyson, whose gripping memoir/history book Blood Done Signed My Name, has found its way onto the big screen. This New York Times story covers this particular tale of book to film, and discusses the way both author and filmmakers sought to avoid the comforting but tired narratives of civil rights victory where whites somehow manage to play the leading role.

Dr. Tyson, who was 11 in 1970, chronicles the struggles that his father, Vernon, a Methodist minister, faced in advocating civil rights progress to a conservative parish. (Vernon Tyson was effectively driven out of Oxford by the end of 1970.) Mr. Stuart’s father was a Presbyterian minister who faced similar trials in Gastonia, N.C.
When Mr. Steel and Mr. Stuart met with Dr. Tyson to discuss turning “Blood Done Sign My Name” into a movie, with Mr. Stuart as writer and director, the author was initially leery of turning over his work to a Hollywood filmmaker bearing the name of a Confederate general. (Mr. Stuart was nicknamed for, but not descended from, the rebel cavalry officer J. E. B. Stuart.) But the men soon discovered they agreed on what the movie should avoid.
“One of the goals was not to make ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” Mr. Stuart said in an interview at Mr. Steel’s Greenwich office. “What always happens in the way Hollywood tells these stories is that the white guy saves the day. I did not want to fall into that trap. The Tysons got run out of town. Tim’s dad is one of my heroes in this movie, but he’s not Gregory Peck. He’s not going to make it all right for everybody.”

Besides being a fan of “The Fugitive” Dr. Tyson was happy to learn that he and Mr. Stuart both loathe movies like “Mississippi Burning” and “Ghosts of Mississippi,” in which conflicts between good and bad white people overshadow the actions of blacks. Interviewed by phone from his current home in Durham, where he teaches African-American studies at Duke University, Dr. Tyson said that Hollywood’s distortions have helped reinforce the gauzy mythology of the struggles of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Kingand others.

“We have this sugarcoated confection of the civil rights movement in popular memory,” he said. “It’s interracial, it’s nonviolent, and it’s successful. Nobody ever opposed it. In this rendition the civil rights movement is largely a call to America’s conscience that America pretty much answered.” The reality, he said, was more complex.

A trailer for the film is here, and Tim talks about the book here.


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