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When you think Vietnam-era civil-rights story, you probably don’t think of Ricky Schroder. Yet the erstwhile Silver Spoon–er provides the star power in Blood Done Sign My Name, writer-director Jeb Stuart’s adaptation of an autobiography detailing a 1970 hate crime in Oxford, N.C.
Schroder plays Vernon Tyson, a Methodist minister who preaches tolerance as soon as he and his button-nosed family arrive in the still-segregated rural town. (Cue montage of tykes playing stickball while Mom, a terribly stiff Susan Walters, teaches and bakes.) During his first service, the pastor includes the phrase “all races” in a prayer. (Cut to the raised eyebrow of a parishoner.) Tyson then visits an old woman, who says there are differences between preachers and prophets, the latter telling people not what they want to hear but “challeng[ing] us with things we needed to hear. Which one are you?” (Take a guess.)
So Stuart, whose only prior feature is the little-seen 1997 thriller Switchback, isn’t exactly subtle in his rendering of the book by the real Vernon’s son, Tim, who became a professor and historian specializing in African-American studies. Another misstep is introducing the film with stock ’60s & ’70s footage of Vietnam, Nixon, Woodstock, etc., followed by faux-candid interviews of black men and women talking about how separated they felt from the rest of the hippie zeitgeist. It’s all rather odd and distracting: Is this a mockumentary? The story of a visionary who changed a town’s long-held prejudices? A look at how some of the area’s most enterprising blacks—particularly Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), a schoolteacher who decides to reopen the family drive-in—prospered regardless of the hate they encountered every day?
About halfway through Blood, you discover it’s not really any of those things. That’s when black Vietnam vet Dickie Marrow (A.C. Sanford) appears, returning home to his pregnant wife and young children. There’s a celebration, but the joyfulness doesn’t last long. One night, Dickie is walking through town and talks to a couple of pretty black girls. Soon, a white shop-owner (Nick Searcy, fury bleeding from his eyes) and son take umbrage at Marrow’s presence. Shots are fired, and Dickie is kicked and beaten to death. Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami), a civil-rights “stoker,” shows up at Dickie’s funeral and organizes a march to Raleigh. When the march has no effect, it’s back to Oxford for looting and destruction.
The remainder of the film focuses on Dickie’s murder trial and on Ben, who becomes Frinks’ protégé, while Schroder’s Tyson is downgraded to periodic glimpses of looking concerned. (Ricky seems to have seen his share of weariness himself, appearing bloated and a helluva lot older than near-40.) Blood does have its share of wrenching moments, including, of course, Dickie’s murder and a scene of a young black man acting unfathomably polite when Robert turns him down for a haircut with daggers in his voice. (The bite of another scene in which white children spew bile is dimished by a subsequent chase accompanied by…an Irish jig.) Overall, though, the film offers the melodrama and unremarkable performances of a TV movie, failing to highlight the crux of this snapshot of history as it bobbles characters and subplots.