You don’t have to be familiar with the specifics of the James Byrd lynching to be disturbed by the opening of the new documentary, Two Towns of Jasper. Beginning with a haunting tracking shot down the dirt road that proved to be the death of Byrd, the film is an absorbing, intermittently disturbing portrait of modern-day evil.
When the news broke of the lynching of Byrd, a middle-aged black man living in the small East Texas town of Jasper, filmmaker Whitney Dow called his longtime friend and fellow New York artist Marco Williams. Dow wanted to visit Texas to cover a Ku Klux Klan rally that was planned “in support” of the white community, with an eye toward a documentary project. Williams was unable to make the trip, so Dow went alone. What he found surprised him, and confounded his expectations.
“It was different from the clichéd image I’d had of a Southern town,” Dow said in a recent interview in his basement production office in Soho. Failing to find the redneck sheriff and Klan sympathizers he’d expected, Dow realized that Jasper “was much more complex.” The town wasn’t some dismal holdout from the Jim Crow era, but a reasonably tolerant community with integrated schools, a black mayor, two black city councilmen, and a white district attorney opposed to the death penalty.
Returning to New York, Dow relayed his enthusiasm to Williams, and the two began discussing making a documentary. The pair, both in their late 30s, had known each other for 25 years, since they were adolescents in Williamstown, Mass. The men are similar in many respects: New Englanders who attended prep schools and Ivy League colleges who ended up filmmakers in New York City. However, Dow is white and Williams, who taught film at the North Carolina School of the Arts in the mid-1990s, is black.
Though both are veteran filmmakers, they’d never worked together before, and they thought the Byrd case would be an excellent opportunity for collaboration. Very quickly, they hit on the idea of covering the story with two segregated film crews. Dow and a white crew would cover the white community in Jasper, and Williams would do the same among the black community, with a black crew. Working in this fashion, they hoped to find greater candor among the residents.
Dow and Williams made a series of trips to Jasper to cover the three subsequent trials and shot about 240 hours of video footage, which was painstakingly winnowed down to the 90-minute product that will be seen this weekend at DoubleTake, and will be aired on PBS’s P.O.V. series in the fall.
“We worked autonomously of each other in production, and we didn’t inform or influence each other,” Williams said in an interview at his 11th-floor office at New York University, where he teaches filmmaking. The sheer quantity of footage made it possible for Dow and Williams to create a shapely, coherent storyline. Both filmmakers located politically moderate public figures to provide parallel narratives–Dow in the form of a white radio reporter named Mike Loud, and Williams in the person of a black businessman and government official named Walter Diggles, who served as a public mediator for the community.
The white radio reporter, in his role of play-by-play announcer (cameras were barred from the courtroom), appears as a sympathetic narrator to white viewers. But black audiences might more readily identify with the conflicted figure of Walter Diggles, torn by his ties to the black community and his need to function in the white dominated worlds of business and government. In one of the film’s most fascinating scenes, Williams films Diggles at a golf course, revealing his passion for a game that is a classic form of recreation for networking businessmen, and one that Diggles has taken up for that very reason. In between blasting drives at the practice tee, however, Diggles discusses the hate mail he’s received due to his participation in the case.
It’s perhaps inevitable that Dow’s characters tend to be less sympathetic–he spends a fair amount of time with relatives of the defendants, and his most interesting character turns out to be a white supremacist ex-con. Dow also returns time and again to a weekly breakfast club called Bubbas in Training. These citizens, all white, are the collective voice of the white community, and we see their irritation at the attention the Byrd family has received in the aftermath of the crime, and the bad publicity their town has attracted. “It always surprised me, the level of anger directed at James Byrd,” Dow recalls.
Fortuitously, the work of Dow and Williams converge at the end of the film, when one of Williams’ characters, a black woman, confronts the brother of the third defendant, who was one of Dow’s principal subjects. In the film’s most gripping scene, the woman asks some very direct questions of the man, as the film cuts between the cameras of Dow and Williams, each of which are trained on their respective subjects. Though the confrontation was an accident, “it’s exactly how you would have scripted it,” Williams acknowledges.
Although Dow and Williams succeed in sussing out the complexities of a town riven by racism and mistrust, they’re not optimistic about the prospects for peace in Jasper. “Has there been a sea change in Jasper? I’m guessing not,” says Dow.
For his part, Williams was intrigued by the absence of black rage and he located a partial explanation in a black character’s remark that did not make it into the finished film: “We’re scared for our lives, and we’re scared for our jobs.” This was the reality that Williams ultimately found. “Jasper is a town built on a patronage system,” he concludes, “where whites have power and blacks don’t.”
Any young documentary filmmaker would be thrilled to have Macky Alston’s short but impressive resume. After winning acclaim and distribution for his last documentary, Family Name, the North Carolina-born Alston now has another picture, Questioning Faith, which is set to air later this year on HBO, and which will premiere this weekend at DoubleTake. With his new film about maintaining religious faith in the face of tragedy, Alston continues his penchant for intensely personal, occasionally self-lacerating cinematic explorations. Despite his successes, however, as Questioning Faith demonstrates, merely making films is an insufficient creative outlet for the New York-based documentarian. To further his aspirations, Alston completed a master’s degree in divinity, and is set to be ordained as a minister.
“I always felt a dual call between artwork and the ministry,” Alston says, serving up coffee recently in the West Village apartment he shares with his partner. “I worked in documentary filmmaking for 10 years. It doesn’t provide a complete context in which I felt I was answering that call.”
While Alston has a humanist interest in bringing together all people of faiths and non-faiths, he is also very much the son of his forefathers. By entering the ministry, Alston is continuing a long family tradition–he will be a fourth generation minister. His father, in fact, was the pastor of Durham’s First Presbyterian Church, and Alston lived in Durham until he was 8. Even as he follows the path of his forebears, Alston is breaking with family tradition in at least one respect: The Presbyterian Church does not ordain avowed homosexuals, and Alston has since found a more welcoming home in the United Church of Christ.
His North Carolina roots played a key role in his 1997 film, Family Name. The name in question is “Alston,” and Triangle residents will recognize it as a common one in this region, particularly among African Americans. The reason for the name’s ubiquity is simple, as we learn in Alston’s film: There was a large, notoriously brutal plantation in Chatham County that was owned by an Alston, one who bequeathed his name to the descendents of his slaves and to his white descendant, Macky Alston.
In his new film, the 36-year-old Alston charts the troubled waters of his own spirituality as he completed his studies at the progressive Union Theological Seminary, located in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. When a friend and fellow seminarian died of AIDS, Alston’s faith in the benevolence of God was profoundly shaken. Furthermore, as he confesses in his film, he felt guilty for not having been present for his dying friend.
Alston decided to heed his artistic impulse by studying how tragedy and suffering have affected other people’s spiritual lives, in the hopes of coming to terms with his own ambivalence. Beginning with a deeply moving interview with the mother of his deceased friend, at her home in Memphis, and continuing back in New York with profiles of Muslims, a Buddhist, a Jew, a couple of atheists and another Protestant–all of whom have been in crisis–Alston comes to understand the universality of faith, and the universality of suffering.
Parts of the film are painful to watch, especially the physical deterioration of his seminary’s cancer-stricken chaplain, a woman with a powerful, declamatory speaking style, born of the twin traditions of the black church and black feminist literature. In another wrenching scene, an elderly Jewish woman insists on the absence of God, even as she weeps at the memory of her late husband. Strikingly, the woman tells Alston that his urge to help people who are suffering has less to do with his particular religion than “the kind of person you are.”
As a gay man, Alston knows firsthand the unpleasant aspects of religious orthodoxy. Though atheism doesn’t appear to have much appeal for him, in his film he seems attracted to Buddhism, a religion of stoicism, self-discipline and inner spirituality. To learn more, Alston visits with an attractive Asian woman and films her chanting prayers by the Hudson River. When she flashes a radiant smile and assures Alston that “every human being has the potential for buddhahood,” he acknowledges the appeal of her faith, saying that if he had been raised a Buddhist, he “would be a Buddhist today.” Almost with regret, he continues, “But whether it’s how I was raised, or who I am, I feel that I am in a relationship with God, a god outside of me, a god I don’t understand.”
Alston’s film concludes on an upbeat note, with his graduation ceremony, and a memorial service for his late friend. He invited the subjects of his film to attend, and they all make impassioned statements that reflect their own spiritual perspectives. The service concludes with the tying together of ribbons, symbolizing the universal truths that can bind people of all belief systems together. It’s an inspiring humanist vision, and one that provides a taste of what Alston’s ministry will be like. “The circle at the end of our film, in which everyone speaks their truth and no one is trumped, is a model for our work,” he says, “in which people can share their experiences instead of closeting them.”
There will be a screening of Two Towns of Jasper Friday, April 5, at 3:30 p.m., and of Questioning Faith on Sunday, April 7, at 3:30 p.m., at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.