The Two Towns of Jasper
By William Dow and Marco Williams
POV documentary on PBS, Jan.22
After three white men chained a black man named James Byrd to a pickup truck and dragged him to his death outside Jasper, Texas, filmmakers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams came to town to document the aftermath, which included three murder trials and much else. Williams and his black crew hung out with the black community, including Byrd’s family and the town’s African-American mayor, while Dow and a white crew worked with the local whites, including relatives of the three white men charged with the crime.
All three of the accused were convicted, each in a separate trial, but this highly charged film is much more than a real-life story of crime and punishment. Two Towns is also a balanced, searching portrait of a racially divided small town struggling to overcome the lingering effects of a segregated past, and it is particularly sharp in evoking the welter of animosities, sympathies, delusions, rationalizations, symbolic gestures, self-serving sentiments, mixed motives, and partial solutions just under the surface of the town’s good-faith efforts to heal its shared wounds.
Dow, Whitney, and editor Melissa Neidrich compile all this into something as rich and rewarding as a good "non-fiction novel." There’s a fine array of memorable characters: an activist black minister, a couple of black politicians, a straight-arrow sheriff, the all-white coffee klatch at "Bubba’s Workout," the sorrowful father of one of the killers, the anguished brother of the man who drove the truck, Mike the local radio newsman, and Byrd family women gathering like furies in a Greek tragedy. The moment in which the first guilty verdict comes through is stunning in a way that even the greatest of scripted dramas would be hard pressed to match.