MONROE, North Carolina - The Associated Press
Screenwriter Jeb Stuart was 14 years old in 1970 when a black man was shot to death on a public street as he begged for his life.
The killing, trial, acquittals and race riots played out in Oxford, barely 160 miles (257 kilometers) from Stuart's home in Gastonia, but the writer of such action films as "Die Hard" and "The Fugitive" was oblivious to the strife.
That was not the sepia-toned South of his youth. "I grew up in the '60s with the idea it was the most wonderful place in the world to live," said Stuart, who was named for the Confederate cavalry general famous for riding circles around superior Union forces.
Now Stuart is bringing the story of the slaying of 23-year-old Henry Marrow to the big screen by directing the movie version of "Blood Done Sign My Name," author Tim Tyson's story of race and retribution in the tiny farming community where he grew up.
For both men -- white North Carolina natives and the sons of ministers -- the movie is a chance to explore the lives of blacks in the South, a story Stuart now recognizes as far different from the one he experienced. To blacks, the Confederacy -- the flag, the monument, the soldiers -- represented prejudice and injustice, not the same meaning that it had for Stuart.
Many of the film's scenes were shot in Monroe and in the nearby town of Shelby, hometown of neo-Confederate icon Thomas Dixon, author of the 1905 novel "The Clansman." The book was the basis for D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," a racially charged and historically flawed film that helped give birth to the modern Ku Klux Klan.
"Birth" is "one of the first mass cultural images of the South ... and, of course, it's not the African-American story at all. ... It's not the Southern story at all," Tyson said. "It's a fantasy of racial supremacy."
It would seem a paradox that Dixon's hometown serves as the backdrop for "Blood," which ultimately explores the dangers and legacy of racism. But Tyson notes that the themes of both movies, created more than 90 years apart, are similar: citizenship, violence, race and sexuality.
"I felt like the Lord brought us to Shelby to do battle with our own pasts and with our own stories about our pasts," said Tyson, who teaches at Duke University and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his alma mater.
"Blood Done Sign My Name" comes from a Negro spiritual that refers to the crucifixion. Tyson said he chose the title in an effort to turn something horrific into something useful. Blood refers to family, race and murder, all themes that run through the book, and signing your name signifies a commitment.
"The story," Tyson said, "is a kind of a commitment that many generations of Southerners, black and white, have made to try to have a multiracial democracy and try to redeem the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence into more than words."
"Blood Done Sign My Name" is the story of imperfect human beings making imperfect history.
"In this story, it's human beings who are flawed, imperfect and caught in a hard history, and they are grappling to make sense of it and to fix what cannot be fixed," Tyson said. "It's not about saints and heroes, but it's about ordinary people like ourselves."
The movie stars Rick Schroeder ("NYPD Blue") as Tyson's father, the Rev. Vernon Tyson, who was forced to leave town and his Methodist church because of his support for civil rights. Nate Parker ("The Great Debaters") plays Ben Chavis, Marrow's cousin who went on to become executive director and CEO of the NAACP.
Parker, who co-stars in "The Secret of Life of Bees," set for release in October, read the "Blood" script and the book before accepting the part.
"We really have to tell the story and tell it in a way that is correct, that is truthful and honest," he said. "Hollywood has a way sometimes to kind of give people what they think people are ready for rather than what the truth is."
Stuart, a self-described "a true son of the South," said people often asked whether he wanted to make a movie that would dig up all the anger, hurt and frustration of almost 40 years ago.
"It was never my intention to show the South at its best," he said. "I continually surprised myself in terms of the depth of the anger from the black community, the depth of the frustration.
Tyson contends events that frame the South's painful past are still relevant today: A young black man is killed, there's police and judicial misconduct, riots result and white-owned businesses are destroyed. That could be a story set in post-2000 Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, Miami, Cleveland or New Orleans, he said.
"In that sense," he said, "I hope that what we are telling is a kind of human history in which we can see the faces of people that we know and that we are, and that as we struggle to find meaning in our past that we'll manage to find hope in our future."