When you think “Vietnam-era civil-rights story,” you probably don’t think of Ricky Schroder. Yet the erstwhile Silver Spoon-er is tasked with providing the star power in Blood Done Sign My Name, 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 the montage of tykes playing stickball while Mom, the terribly stiff Susan Walters, teaches and bakes.) During his first service, Tyson includes the phrase “all races” in a prayer. (Cut to a parishioner’s raised eyebrow.) He 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 isn’t exactly subtle in rendering the book by the real Vernon’s son, Tim, who became a professor and historian specializing in African American studies. Another misstep is opening the film with stock footage of the war, 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? 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 despite the hate they encountered every day?
About halfway through Blood, you discover it’s not really any of those things. That’s when Vietnam vet Dickie Marrow (A.C. Sanford) is introduced, 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. Larry Teel (Cullen Moss), the son of a racist white shop owner named Robert (Nick Searcy), is nearby and assumes Dickie is talking to his wife. (Or, more likely, just wants a reason to fight.) Soon, 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 that doesn’t have any effect, it’s back to Oxford for looting and destruction.
The remainder of the film focuses on Dickie’s murder trial and Ben becoming Frinks’ protégé, while Tyson is downgraded to periodic shots in which he looks concerned. (Ricky seems to have seen his share of troubles, appearing bloated and a hell of a lot older than near-40.) Blood does have its share of wrenching moments, including, of course, Dickie’s murder, as well as a scene of a young black man acting unfathomably polite when Robert turns him down for a haircut with daggers in his voice. But the bite of another scene in which white children are spewing bile is reduced when a subsequent chase scene is accompanied on the soundtrack by… an Irish jig. Offering the melodrama and unremarkable performances of a TV movie, Blood Done Sign My Name bobbles characters and subplots, and so undermines its presentation of a snapshot of history.