When three white men in Jasper, Texas, chained James Byrd, a black man, to a pickup truck and dragged him to a grisly death four years ago, most Americans recoiled in horror.
New York documentarians Whitney Dow and Marco Williams decided to explore how this could happen in this small southeast Texas town, which, on the surface, appeared to have a pretty good mix of blacks and whites. Dow, who is white, and Williams, who is black, each delved into their respective racial groups, focusing on representative cross-sections in the town. The result is Two Towns of Jasper, a collaborative effort that the pair will introduce this weekend as part of the new Starz FilmCenters' Meet the Director series.
Williams first drove to Jasper from Houston with visions of the film Mississippi Burning -- which re-created Civil Rights-era violence -- dancing in his head. But the stereotypical imagery faded quickly as he drove into town. "I found Jasper to be very black and white -- though I think to be black and white is to be complex," he says. "One of the cylinders in my engine was trying to understand how this type of crime could have occurred, and people provided some understanding: The way people were there was very much the way I find blacks and whites relate everywhere: They live apart from each other, few friends cross the race line. They work together, but in fact, if they don't get beyond that, it means little.
"I was initially caught off guard at the absence of black rage," Williams continues. "At best, anger was muted in the black community. Here is a town whose population is roughly 45 percent black -- the mayor is black, there are black city council members, the head of the chamber of commerce is black. I expected a strong black voice there, and there wasn't. It took me a while to understand why and how that could be." The anger, he learned, was repressed. As one interviewee frankly told him, the blacks of Jasper were afraid for their jobs and for their lives. That absence of a real black power system, he adds, contributed to the atmosphere in which Byrd's dragging death was possible.
Dow, too, quickly encountered real tension between the two communities, in spite of outward appearances. "I didn't want to be playing a game of 'gotcha' with people," he notes. "But a lot of the time, I had the impression people were not honest about how they really felt. It was the middle-class, "good" people of Jasper who were least able to examine themselves. Everybody was upset by the murder and believed the death penalty was warranted. But at same time, there was also a real sense of anger directed at James Byrd in the white community. He was a drunk and a drug addict, and his family got a lot money out of the incident -- they were getting 'uppity.' Byrd, in their eyes, really was a 'nigger' -- they differentiate between blacks and niggers -- and here this guy's being canonized."
Such gaps, both filmmakers agree, exist across the nation, and Williams leaves no doubt about his belief that a crime like the one in Jasper could easily happen again. "Absolutely," he maintains. "We found it's the white people who are talking about individual change, while the blacks talk about the need for institutional change. That really reflects where we stand in terms of the racial equation. Change has to occur on both the institutional and individual levels. And I don't know who is ready to make those kinds of commitments."
Adds Dow: "Even though the opportunities continue to grow for an understanding between black and white Americans, attempts to bridge that divide have probably diminished. Maybe it's not a gulf that can actually be bridged."