Two lenses capture a divided town
The concept was surprisingly simple: A white and a black filmmaker go to a divided town and interview members of their own racial communities after a modern-day lynching.
The resulting documentary - "Two Towns of Jasper," airing on PBS's P.O.V. series on Jan. 22 - is compelling, not because its underlying subject is new, sadly, but because its viewpoint is.
The film grew out of a realization by the two filmmakers that just as their reactions had been different to the murder - one was surprised by it, the other was not - that the crime offered an opportunity to highlight how differently black and white Americans experience the world.
By offering insight into how each group talked among themselves about the same event, the duo hoped to help improve communication about race.
"Marco and I have been friends for a long time, and have sort of felt there was no language to discuss race anymore in any sort of constructive way," says Whitney Dow, the white documentarian, in a phone interview. "We thought perhaps if we created something where people didn't talk across race, but had the opportunity to sort of look in and listen to what the other group felt, that it might be a more effective way of communicating."
Fueling the experiment was the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas (pop. 7,000). Mr. Byrd was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death by three white men, at least two of whom had ties to white supremacist movements.
"I was instantly drawn to the crime," says Mr. Dow. "It reminded me of something about America that you kind of hope was more in the past. It was a murder that had all these hallmarks of a traditional, if you can use that word, lynching."
When Dow heard about it, he went to Jasper to see the racial battle that was playing out there. He also called his longtime friend Marco Williams, an experienced filmmaker, who didn't share his friend's amazement.
"I said, 'You know, Whitney, it's a terrible thing, I haven't really been following it. But I'm neither shocked nor surprised, because it's not the first time in America that a black man has been brutally murdered by whites," he says.
The two men spent 100 days in Jasper, each working with "segregated" crew members and exclusively interviewing residents of his own race. In order that the town not find out they were working together, Dow and Williams avoided contact. They stayed at separate hotels and would occasionally hold cellphone conversations standing next to each other on the courthouse lawn.
Williams says that task was easy for him - the town was so racially divided that he almost never encountered white people.
The film takes place in 1999, the year all three of the defendants were tried, by mainly white juries. Two received the death penalty and one was sentenced to life in prison. Unlike the O.J. Simpson trial, the town wasn't split on whether the men committed the crime, but on what it meant to the community.
In Jasper, the mayor was black, as was half the city council and nearly half the residents. This sparked the question: How could this happen here?
That question informed Williams's portrayal of the black community. "In some ways, it's an indictment of ourselves or an alarm about ourselves as black people," he explains. "It's very easy to condemn whites, and they certainly, to an extent, are deserving of condemnation or critique regarding race relations and racism. But we also as a community have to be prepared to take action," he says.
He depicts the black residents being somewhat fearful and uncertain at the beginning, and shows how they become better about speaking up about the murder and other events.
"I don't know that Jasperites can fully read my portrait of them," he continues. "It is a commentary on [how] if you don't stand up and confront the problems, then the problems will persist. We have a responsibility to act and not just to blame."
In many ways, race relations in Jasper are the same as they are in the rest of America, says Dow. "We have good public relationships with each other, but at the end of the day, most people go home to their own communities and don't have any sort of real relationships on a personal level across race," he says.
In the white community, one man in the film grapples with using a racist word, commenting that he didn't grow up knowing it was offensive.
Dow suggests that the man may not be being honest with himself, but beyond that, he believes it shows how the rules about race relations are constantly changing, and how that affects white people's ability to engage with the black community.
"I hope that when people watch that scene that they take something more complex from it than just, 'Oh, this is a stupid old man trying to defend himself.' "
Some Jasper residents have seen the final program, and more will get a chance to discuss it next week. On Thursday, PBS will air a town meeting in Jasper hosted by Ted Koppel, which will also air in part on ABC on "Nightline." The documentarians also will be interviewed on "Nightline" and "Oprah" next Tuesday.
When he introduces the film to audiences, Dow tells them that he and Williams don't expect them to enjoy it, because it's not enjoyable.
But, he adds, "I hope you don't look at it as an examination of a place far away from you.... We worked very hard not to make this film just about Jasper."