The Two Towns of Jasper
review by KJ Doughton, 21 June 2002
28th Seattle International Film
presence we observe in the opening frames of The Two Towns of
Jasper is a rural sheriff sporting a cowboy hat, a white,
long-sleeved shirt, dapper, freshly pressed slacks, and a garish red
tie. No mistake about it. We’re in Texas. He’s driving us towards a
desolate road, overgrown with grass and well off the beaten trail.
"This is where they took him," the law enforcer explains.
"Initially, there was talk of investigating a hit and run." As we
continue to weave down backwoods country streets, the crime scene
descriptions become more vivid, until we’re hit with the shock of
exactly how heinous an act is being discussed.
On June 7, 1998, a middle-aged
African American named James Byrd was picked up by a trio of white
trash hoodlums, chained to the back of their pickup, and dragged
down three miles of gravel while his elbows were ground into nubs
and a trail of blood and skin tissue painted their route.
Eventually, Byrd’s head and right arm were caught on the edge of a
concrete pipe, and the agony-riddled man was decapitated.
Such barbarism seemed a throwback
to something pulled from a medieval torture manual. How could it
happen? And how did the mixed-race town of Jasper, Texas pick up the
pieces and move on following such a volatile event? The Two Towns
of Jasper was filmed by two directors, one black and one white,
to document the fallout from the perspectives of both African
American and European American sides of the local community. This
approach proved a stroke of genius. With Jasper boasting a 45% black
population, a black mayor, and a nearly even community profile
between the races, documentary filmmakers Whitney Dow and Marco
Williams discover how such a tragic event can polarize an area into
sub-groups, even as it brings people together to heal as a holistic
We peek into a community gathering
of white townsfolk, where the focus of conversation is on Byrd’s
moral character. "I think he should be judged by the way he lived,"
asserts one man as he digs into some grub at a packed dinner table,
"not by the way he died. He shouldn’t be made a martyr. He’s not a
good Christian, and he’s not a role model for our children."
Another dinner guest confesses that
he was brought up not to mingle with the black community, stating,
"I was told to say hi to ‘em, then bye to ‘em, then stay away from ‘em."
A few blocks down the road, a
cluster of African American women with hair in curlers discuss the
crime at a beauty shop. "Jasper has a lot of skeletons in its
closets," one claims. "This is not an isolated incident."
The Two Towns of Jasper
probes these contrasting views, opinions, and attitudes concerning
the impending trials of Bill King, Lawrence Brewer, and Shawn Berry,
three tattooed hayseeds who allegedly polished off a night of
drinking beer and looking for women by brutalizing and ultimately
murdering Byrd. A County Defense Attorney assigned to the case
describes their predatory behavior as that of "a packs of dogs on
the heels of a deer."
The film does an amazing job of
pushing the dirt of Jasper deep beneath our fingertips. We watch a
mixed race church, where a black gospel choir belts out emotional
hymns and the white congregation tries stiffly, in vain, to sway
along with such movement-prompting rhythms. Later, we watch as a
cemetery fence is taken down that once separated the town’s African
American burials from those of Jasper’s whites. Community youth
groups pass out yellow ribbons in remembrance of Byrd.
As the trial dates materialize,
Jasper buzzes with the sounds of overhead helicopters and vanloads
of Black Panthers who insist that their presence has resulted from
the requests of area families, even as such would-be invitees deny
this. The callousness of news reporters covering the scene is
revealed when an anchorwoman, wielding an intrusive microphone like
a cattle prod, shoves herself in front of Byrd’s sister and asks,
"How did it feel to know he was still alive (while being dragged)?"
We also sympathize with the father
of one defendant, who looks like a haggard old garage mechanic
sucking up air from an oxygen tank. As this patron thumbs through
old photo albums of his now-infamous son, we realize that even a
participant in an act this reprehensible was once a sweet-faced
child, loved and raised by elders who don’t necessarily share the
warped perspective on humanity that their boy has since adopted.
When the father waits outside the town courtyard and hears a
"Guilty" verdict being announced later in the film, he props his
failing body against a car to gasp from his respirator. It’s
After two trials conclude, things
reach a crescendo during the prolonged final case of Shawn Berry,
the most familiar of the three and a "hometown boy" with plentiful
friends in the community. We see such acquaintances rationalize his
involvement. "Being at the wrong place at the wrong time," suggests
one of Berry’s advocates, "is not the same as committing a crime."
Another white Jasper resident
admits, "When you know somebody, you want to cut him some slack."
Byrd’s family has a slightly different perspective, with one member
declaring, "If you want mercy, show yourself to be merciful."
Comic relief is supplied by a
longtime racist living in a trailer with his pregnant wife and
children. When the proud redneck reunites with one of the film’s
directors after several weeks have passed, he’s asked if anything
noteworthy has happened. "I got married," the okie proclaims, like a
Heavy Metal Parking Lot refugee hammered on Pabst Blue Ribbon
and reeking of bongwater. "Er, was it last week? This week? What am
Ultimately, however, The Two
Towns of Jasper is no laughing matter. Even as the final guilty
verdict rings through the town’s crowded courtroom, and people file
out to attend celebratory backyard barbecues and dance parties, the
spirit of James Byrd hovers over the town, reminding us of how the
past is destined to repeat itself, should we choose to forget it.
Seattle International Film Festival