Jasper, Texas (2003)

 

 

 

 

Director:     .

Starring:     Roy T. Anderson (James Byrd, Jr.), Demore Barnes (Ricky Horn), John Bayliss (City Manager), James Bearden (Old Sour Man), Samantha Bee (Kathy), Addison Bell (Judge), Conrad Bergschneider (Moe Johnson), Matt Birman (Beating Cop), Kedar Brown (Reverend), Sandra Caldwell (Norva), Marium Carvell (Gloria Mays), Eugene Clark (Don Clark), Michael Copeman (Council Member #2), Neil Crone (Principal), Travis Kyle Davis (Black Young Man), Aaryn Doyle (Small Black Girl), Martin Doyle (Mr. Powell), Cherion Drakes (Claire Byrd), David Eisner (Mike Bradford), Craig Eldridge (Dr. Brown), Michael Ferguson (William Hoover), Louis Gossett Jr. (R.C. Horn), Charles W. Gray (Black Citizen), Kevin Hanchard (Thurman Byrd), Kate Hennig (White Mother),  J.J. Hewitt (Young Black Man), Gary Hudson (Sonny Cribbs), Ray Kahnert (State Police Captain), Bill Lake (Council Member #1), Holly Lewis (Michelle Chapman), Blu Mankuma (James Byrd Sr), Christopher Marren (Klan Leader), Andre Mayers (Sergeant Carter), Dean McKenzie (Mr. Nelson), Michael McLachlan (Bill King), Michael Millar (Charlie Nicholson), James Millington (Catholic Priest), Richard Mills (Jury Foreman), Michelle Moffat (Mamie Horn), Joe Morton (Walter Diggles), Dave Nichols (Reporter #1), J.D. Nicholsen (Mike Lout), Deborah Odell (Woman Reporter), Rahnuma Panthaky (Reporter #2), Ron Payne (Old Sour Man), Eric Peterson (Old Mr. King), Toby Proctor (Sean Berry), Leah Renee (Brandi Eggleson), Karen Robinson (Mary Horn), Philip Shepherd (Uniform), Victoria Snow (Nancy Nicholson), Jeff Topping (Russell Brewer), Kate Trotter (Jamie Rowles), Jon Voight (Billy Rowles), Ned Vukovic (Mike Bradford), Wayne Ward (Deputy), Ron White (Guy James Gray), Bokeem Woodbine (Khalid X), Emily Yancy (Stella Byrd).

an African-American man is dragged behind a truck by three white men until he is dead in Jasper, east Texas, USA

 

Spoiler Warning:

The sheriff of Jasper, Texas is enjoying his day off driving in his vehicle on his way to the golf course, but he gets a call that there's been a really bad hit and run and he better take a look at it. 

Jasper, Texas.  [ Jasper is the County seat of Jasper County, situated in the Deep East Texas subregion, about 130 miles (210 km) northeast of Houston.] The town has a black mayor named R. C. Horn.  Sheriff Billy Rowles is white.  Billy arrives at the crime scene.  A deputy tells him the body is up the road a little ways.  Billy can see that something was being dragged because there is a path marked on the road.  He tells the deputy that he'll just follow the path and it will lead him right to the body.  He walks up the road and stops to check the road side.  There is a sound of flies bussing around the area.  He pushes the plants out of the way and a severed head and a severed arm laying on the ground.  The site shocks the sheriff and he pulls back fast. 

The Mayor and his wife are planning their Sunday dinner where the whole family gets together.  The wife is not too happy when her husband has to tell her he has to go.  He tells her:  "Official business."

Billy tells the Mayor that back there by the logging road there are signs there was a scuffle.  The body may have been dragged along the road for some three miles and dumped by the side of the road. 

The news of the beheaded black man spreads fast among the community.  They Byrd family is sitting down for supper.  It's the grandparents along with the grandchildren.  They're expecting James Byrd, Jr., the father to be coming along soon, but they haven't been able to reach him by phone.  The family talks about the beheaded man and grandfather says the reverend in church told the young people not to be going out at night for awhile.  All of a sudden there is a knock on the door.   It's Sheriff Billy and a black deputy.  He tells the family that he has some bad news to tell them.  The grandparents' son, James Byrd, Jr., was killed.   They believe that he may have been murdered.  The family is very shaken up by the totally unexpected news. 

At the police station Billy shows some items found that might belong to the killer or killers.  There are two items marked with the initials S. B.  The black deputy brings a boy into the station who saw something relating to the crime.  The boy says he saw James Byrd hitching for a ride around 1 a.m.  Then these white men in a truck picked him up. 

Thinking about SB the black deputy says it could be Sean Berry.  And Sean Berry hangs out with Bill King.  Holding a cigarette lighter, the sheriff says that the marking on the lighter is a "Ku Klux Klan deal".  It's made by connecting three K's together. The sheriff says to tell all units to pick up Sean Berry.

The Mayor has flashbacks to the horrific murder scene.  Now he's worried about the where-abouts of his own son.  The boy comes to Sunday dinner a bit late and the Mayor goes off on him saying that when he's running late, he must telephone them and let them know.  Then he hugs his son. 

The sheriff brings the suspect's truck to the station to have a close look at it.  He finds a set of tools with the SB initials engraved into them. 

The Mayor goes to the Byrd home to offer his condolences.  The grandfather asks the Mayor, a funeral director, to take care of his son's body because his son practically was raised alongside R. C.'s boy.  The Mayor agrees to do it. 

Sean Berry and Bill King are now in the sheriff's custody.  The two are sticking to their story that all they were doing on the night of the crime was riding around in the truck. 

The sheriff and the district attorney decide to concentrate on breaking Sean Berry down, since the fellow is so scared already.  The sheriff tells Sean that he's so scared that he can hardly even breathe.  There are items here that were left at the scene of the scuffle and his truck has the blood of James Byrd. Jr. on it.  Sean is facing a case of capital murder.  The DA says that if there are any deals to be made, the one who deals first usually gets the best deal.  So Sean starts telling the story from the start.

Sean says they were driving around and they stopped to pick up a hitch-hiker.  The guy says he wants to go into town, so they tell him to hop into the back of the truck.  They stop by Huff Creek.  They start drinking beers and throw one to the hitch-hiker.  Sean cries that the two of them, Bill King and Russell Brewer, said they were just going to beat him up a little.  They bust the beer bottle over the man's head and then start kicking him again and again.  When the guys were totally spent, they put the chains on his ankles.  Then they get into the pick-up  truck and start off, dragging the guy behind them.  When Sean finally turned around to look back, the body wasn't there any more.

Sean shouts:  "Look, we just wanted to fuck with some nigger.  It just got out of hand, is all."

The sheriff now tells the Mayor that James was just a random victim.  And what they have here is a hate crime.  The Mayor comments:  "We picked a terrible time to get elected, didn't we?"  Their only consolation is that the Feds will be taking the case over.

The sheriff drives to the police station and he is met by a small herd of journalists and cameramen.  The sheriff tells them he is making no statements as of right now. 

Inside the police station African-American FBI agent Donald Clark tells the sheriff that he is going to have to make a statement to the press.  Billy wants nothing to do with that saying that this is all under the authority of the feds.  Donald says that until the jurisdiction question is sorted out, the sheriff has to speak to the press.  Again Billy refuses saying it's not his case. 

The FBI man gets the DA to back him and now Billy is given a piece of paper to read to the press.  When they ask questions of the sheriff, Billy is to say things like:  "No comment."  Billy has trouble with the bigger words in the statement, mispronouncing quite a few of the words.

City Manager Walter Diggles' secretary tells him to turn on the television.  He hears the sheriff struggling with the words he's reading.  He goes down to the police station.

RC gets some of the key reverends together.  The sheriff tells them everything he knows about the case.  Some of the black reverends are suspicious of the white sheriff, but it's clear he has the support of the black Mayor.  The Mayor calms the black reverends and says they all have to cooperate to keep a lid on the things so that they avoid any disturbances, such as what happened in Los Angeles, California.

The case gets national attention and Senator Ted Kennedy and President Bill Clinton appear on television talking about it.

The sheriff is worried about the radical group the Black Panthers coming down to Jasper, Texas.  The real problem is that they are coming to Jasper armed with weapons. 

The Panthers arrive and take up positions at the police station.  They demand to march, but seem agreeable to stay out of the downtown area.  And they will march with their weapons.  Over the radio the mayor tells the people to stay in their houses and don't try to interfere with the Panthers, who in no way represent the town of Jasper.

Jesse Jackson, Rep. Maxine Water (Democrat representing California) and the Reverend Al Sharpton come to the funeral. 

The town clergy want the Mayor to have a task force that can arrange some town meetings to have conversations about the effects of the hate crime on the town of Jasper and find ways to calm things down.  The Mayor is not looking forward to this, but he knows he has to do something.  There is a town get-together downtown and there is a good turn out of both blacks and whites.  A couple of rednecks tell the press that it was not a hate crime.  Race isn't involved in this at all.  It was just a drug deal that went bad. 

The Mayor gets death threats over the phone late at night from rednecks.

The Ku Klux Klan decides to hold a rally at the Jasper Courthouse.  And the KKK could be more of a problem than the Black Panthers were. 

And now the Black Panthers are saying they are coming back to Jasper on the same day when the KKK comes to town.  Now the town faces double trouble. 

The trial of Bill King begins.  The sheriff is a bit nervous about what that will entail.  And the sheriff has to testify.  He says that the head and the left shoulder were separated from the the victim's body.  It's his belief that the body being dragged hit a cement culvert and the head and shoulder were separated from the body.  The DA shows photos of the dead body which are very upsetting.  The sheriff has to describe the photos in full detail.  It's tough on the sheriff. 

The Mayor has his first task force public meeting.  There were lots of complaints from the blacks about how they are treated in Jasper.  The sheriff says that life in Jasper between the races is pretty good.  The Mayor says everyone's just been pretending.  There are lots of problems in Jasper between blacks and whites and the Mayor just recently got a big ear full of complaints and now the Mayor is asking the sheriff to rectify these complaints. 

The KKK arrives and starts denouncing blacks and Jews.  And now the Black Panthers are marching toward the KKK.  Billy confronts the Black Panther leader.  He says they can go down to the KKK rally, but they can't be carrying weapons when they do so.  So the Panther leader gives up the weapons to go down and harass the KKK.  The KKK leaders gets all riled up and looks like he wants to charge the Panthers, so the Panthers decide to go after the KKK.  The sheriff calls in all his forces to stop the Panthers and there are enough police to hold the Panthers back.

The trial continues. 

The Byrd family visits the grave of the recently deceased.  They notice that even in death the whites and blacks are separated.  There is a small fence between the white graves sections and the black graves section.  The Byrd grandparents go to see the Mayor about taking down the fence that separates the white and black graves.  The Mayor says it's still a bit too early to do that.

More disturbing photos of the deceased's body are shown in the courtroom.  The doctor is asked a question about the photos.  "Now there's an obvious difference in the shape of the wounds on the buttocks.  What does that tell you?"  The doctor replies:  "It's my opinion that, while being dragged, Mr. Byrd was attempting to relieve the pain and injuries he was receiving.  This dragging was very painful.  In my mind, he was trying to relieve the pain by swapping one portion of his body for the other to get relief and to keep his head off the ground."  Mr. Byrd was still alive while he was being dragged, and was killed when his head and left shoulder were severed from his body. 

The Mayor and the Catholic priest and another white man go to speak to the owners of the cemetery.  They make their best case for tearing down the fence between white and black graves because the fence is a symbol of segregation.  The white owners have a lot of objections to tearing the fence down but they do tell the little committee that they will discuss it amongst themselves and get back to the committee. 

The sheriff asks the local hardware store owner if he would think about hiring some qualified black to work in the hardware store.  The task force received a lot of complaints about there being too few black employees in key stores in Jasper. 

The jury reaches a verdict.  The defendant rises.  They find the defendant guilty of capital murder.  Many people are very happy over the verdict. 

The father of the convicted murderer apologizes to grandfather Byrd after the trial.  Byrd tells the man that it's not his fault that this happened.  "You're just another man who lost his son."

Bill King is sentenced to death by lethal injection. 

And now the fence in the cemetery comes down.  There are lots of whites and blacks helping to take down the fence.

There are two more trials to go. 

The whites vote "no pay" for the Mayor and town council of Jasper.  The sheriff comes to see the Mayor.  They meet at the place where James Byrd, Jr. was dragged to his death.  The Mayor says thank you to the sheriff for cleaning up all the reminders of that terrible evening when Byrd was dragged to his death.  The sheriff says he's sorry that the voters took away the Mayor's stipend.  The Mayor is very philosophical about the matter and says that Rome wasn't built in a day.  Billy says:  "It still stinks."  The Mayor says:  "At least, . . . we ain't pretending no more."

"If King and Brewer are executed, they will be the first white people executed for killing a black person in the State of Texas since 1854  The last time it was a farmer, executed for killing the slave of another farmer.  It was a property issue."

 

Good movie.  And a terrible hate crime.  There are problems of race all over the United States.  It's like the black Mayor of Jasper said, they were all just pretending.  At a town meeting, those obvious problems are brought out for everyone to see and hear with the many complaints about how blacks are treated in Jasper and how the whites don't like the behaviors exhibited by the blacks.  The problems are there all the time, but they don't usually lead to vicious hate crimes or riots.  And yet, the potential for problems is always there under the surface because the deliberately designed system is unequal and unfair. 

The story is treated much like any other crime story, but, of course, national and international attention was brought to Jasper, Texas.  And all the attention brought out the Black Panthers and the KKK and a real possibility of violence. 

Louis Gossett Jr. (as Mayor R.C. Horn) and Jon Voight (as Sheriff Billy Rowles) were both good in their roles. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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