In Jasper, Texas
In “South” filmmaker Chantal Akerman focused on James Byrd Jr., an African-American man, was chained to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged to his death by three men claimed to be white supremacists. The murder shook the small town of Jasper, Texas and, far too briefly, the rest of the nation.
Through the use of tracking shots through town (including one that may be a retracing of the pick-up truck’s route) and no-frills interviews with locals and a lengthy sequence filmed at Byrd’s funeral service, the film is shocking. The film is a meditation on racial hatred as seen through a true story about racial hatred in the rural south. There is no narration during the first 15 minutes as we look at an unnamed city’s black community in a rural southern town, where we view the poor houses and the barren landscape of the farm community. We then learn the town is Jasper, Texas, and in 1998 three white supremacists chained the peaceful black man James Byrd Jr. to the back of their pickup truck and dragged him on a 3-mile stretch down a deserted summer country road in the black section of town. They left him beheaded and mutilated near a black cemetery, with pieces of flesh thrown along the road. The men were quickly arrested, and said their motive was to kill a black man to restore white pride and as a symbolic gesture to drive the blacks out of the country. The victim’s Christian family refused to call for a violent payback and in a black church memorial service for the victim we hear the congregation call for tolerance and a better racial unity in town. The film briefly explores the town’s racial makeup, its past and current racial problems, and the twisted beliefs of the dangerous Christian Aryan hate group and the town’s hopes for the future in overcoming racial hatred. The film ends bringing up ghosts from the South’s past history of bigotry by going over the entire 3-mile death route and allowing us to picture for ourselves that torturous execution scene that might remind some of the crucifixion.
Jasper has an African-American plurality, and early in the film a black woman hails the progress that has been made since the Civil Rights movement, yet Akerman decides to uncover the town’s whiteness. One interviewee details how the Aryan Brotherhood methodically takes over churches and other institutions and trains followers to respond to “trigger phrases” without actually inciting violence. What is alarming is not the perpetuation of racism, but rather the Brotherhood’s invocation of America as a nation defined by whiteness. Akerman explores this through prolonged shots of trees. As the camera lingers, the film foregrounds the passage of time such that the pasts of these trees, sites of past hangings and lynchings, become all but visible, and virulent racism seems to emanate from the landscape and from America itself. Even a paved road is corrupted with the stench and history of violence, so the film ends with an 8-minute long shot following the path in which Byrd was dragged, finding tragedy in the racial attitudes of the Brotherhood. Few films today have so simply and so effectively captured the paradoxical state of race relations in America today. We see a de facto whiteness that threatens not only lives but also the sense of belonging and therefore identity.