Whitney Dow and Marco Williams are old friends. Growing up, they didn’t talk much about race. Then came one of the most appalling crimes in recent American history — the brutal murder of African-American James Byrd, Jr., who was chained to a pick-up truck and dragged to his death by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. Like many others, Dow, who is white, and Williams, who is black, were shocked. Unlike others, they decided to do something — they made a film. Two Towns of Jasper, the documentary that resulted from their efforts, will have its broadcast premiere as part of the POV 15th Anniversary season.
Sharing the concerns of so many Americans, Dow and Williams wondered how and why this had happened. If an explanation was possible, they thought, who better than the citizens of Jasper to provide it, since both victim and perpetrators were locals? So Dow and Williams took to the streets of Jasper during the murderers’ trials to see what the town had to say. And they decided to do it with segregated crews: Williams filmed the black community, Dow filmed the white community. The resulting portrait in Two Towns of Jasper is an explicit accounting of the racial divide in America — a disturbing montage of contrasting realities that somehow inhabit the same place and time.
Two Towns of Jasper premiered Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS. Two Towns of Jasper is the twelfth program in the 15th anniversary season of POV, television’s longest-running series of independent, non-fiction films.
The killing of Byrd horrified the nation. On a June night in 1998 three young white men from Jasper — John King, Lawrence Brewer and Shawn Berry — went out for a drive. After some drinking, they picked up Byrd, a local man, chained him to the back of their truck and dragged him for three miles. Byrd was alive for much of this ordeal. Eventually his head was shorn off and his body disintegrated. It was a modern day lynching.
The filmmakers talked to 30 Jasper citizens — evenly divided between black and white — compiling 240 hours of video. What emerges first is not the picture of a racist southern town — Jasper has a black mayor and an integrated city council. The authorities moved vigorously to apprehend and prosecute the killers, anxious to show the world that Jasper was not racist. Many leading white and black citizens were similarly anxious to counter the infamy of the crime, pointing to the generally harmonious relations between races.
But Two Towns of Jasper reveals a more troubled and nuanced reality behind the demonstrations of racial unity. Beneath honest outrage lurks a legacy of mutual distrust between blacks and whites — and wildly differing accounts of the state of race relations in the town.
Some whites in Jasper feel angry over the negative attention the crime has brought, and claim complete surprise that such an atrocity could have occurred in their town. Others feel a need to point out the faults of James Byrd, Jr., as if his personal shortcomings somehow help explain the crime. One of Jasper’s white citizens, an avowed white supremacist, is neither shocked nor surprised by the crime. He sees the town’s reaction to it as a commentary on the true relationship between blacks and whites.
For Jasper’s African-Americans, the white community’s response to the crime was just another sign that racism is experienced differently. They can recall a history of racist incidents and attitudes that pervade the town and the region. For them, Byrd’s murder is not an anomaly, but an extreme expression of a danger always felt just beneath the surface. Oddly, however, few in either community speak out to confront these atrocities. In fact, it takes Byrd’s murder and the attendant media glare before a fence in the local cemetery, used to separate black from white, is removed.
“Whitney and I spent a lot of time talking about the Byrd murder and how a film might excavate its deeper meaning,” says co-producer/director Williams. “We were both horrified, of course, but the more we talked the more we experienced moments where our viewpoints diverged. We realized the divergences were rooted in our racial identities, our different racial experiences. That was the germ for the approach we took.”
Two Towns of Jasper is not so much about the murder of James Byrd, Jr., as it is about two perspectives on the murder,” adds Dow. “The facts, after all, weren’t in doubt. It’s a question of how you explain those facts. Listening to the black and white communities of Jasper talk about the crime turned out to be a pretty startling revelation of the depth of the division that exists between black and white Americans.”
Revelatory and sobering, the film ultimately invites intense and often provocative discussions about race in America; its history, its future and most importantly, how the question of race plays out in our daily lives.