The first presence we observe in the opening frames of “The Two Towns of Jasper” is a rural sheriff sporting a cowboy hat, a white, long-sleeved shirt, dapper, freshly pressed slacks, and a garish, red tie. No mistake about it. We’re in Texas. He’s driving us towards a desolate road, overgrown with grass and well off the beaten trail. “This is where they took him,” the law enforcer explains. “Initially, there was talk of investigating a hit and run.” As we continue to weave down backwoods country streets, the crime scene descriptions become more vivid, until we’re hit with the shock of exactly how heinous an act is being discussed.
On June 7, 1998, a middle-aged African American named James Byrd was picked up by a trio of white trash hoodlums, chained to the back of their pickup, and dragged down three miles of gravel while his elbows were ground into nubs and a trail of blood and skin tissue painted their route. Eventually, Byrd’s head and right arm were caught on the edge of a concrete pipe, and the agony-riddled man was decapitated.
Such barbarism seemed a throwback to something pulled from a medieval torture manual. How could it happen? And how did the mixed-race town of Jasper, Texas pick up the pieces and move on following such a volatile event? “The Two Towns of Jasper” was filmed by two directors, one black and one white, to document the fallout from the perspectives of both African American and European American sides of the local community. This approach proved a stroke of genius. With Jasper boasting a 45% black population, a black mayor, and a nearly even community profile between the races, filmmakers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams discover how such a tragic event can polarize an area into sub-groups, even as it brings people together to heal as a holistic whole.
We peek into a community gathering of white townsfolk, where the focus of conversation is on Byrd’s moral character. “I think he should be judged by the way he lived,” asserts one man as he digs into some grub at a packed dinner table, “not by the way he died. He shouldn’t be made a martyr. He’s not a good Christian, and he’s not a role model for our children.”
Another dinner guest confesses that he was brought up not to mingle with the black community, stating, “I was told to say hi to ‘em, then bye to ‘em, then stay away from ‘em.”
A few blocks down the road, a cluster of African American women with hair in curlers discuss the crime at a beauty shop. “Jasper has a lot of skeletons in its closets,” one claims. “This is not an isolated incident.”
“The Two Towns of Jasper” probes these contrasting views, opinions, and attitudes concerning the impending trials of Bill King, Lawrence Brewer, and Shawn Berry, three tattooed hayseeds who allegedly polished off a night of drinking beer and looking for women by brutalizing Byrd. A County Defense Attorney assigned to the case describes their predatory behavior as that of “a packs of dogs on the heels of a deer.”
The film does an amazing job of pushing the dirt of Jasper deep beneath our fingertips. We watch a mixed race church, where a black gospel choir belts out emotional hymns and the white congregation tries stiffly, in vain, to sway along with such movement-prompting rhythms. Later, we watch as a cemetery fence is taken down that once separated the town’s African American burials from those of Jasper’s whites. Community youth groups pass out yellow ribbons in remembrance of Byrd.
As the trial dates materialize, Jasper buzzes with the sounds of overhead helicopters and vanloads of Black Panthers who insist that their presence has resulted from the requests of area families, even as such would-be invitees deny this. The callousness of news reporters covering the scene is revealed when an anchorwoman, wielding an intrusive microphone like a cattle prod, shoves herself in front of Byrd’s sister and asks, “How did it feel to know he was still alive (while being dragged)?”
We also sympathize with the father of one defendant, who looks like a haggard old garage mechanic sucking up air from an oxygen tank. As this patron thumbs through old photo albums of his now-infamous son, we realize that even a participant in an act this reprehensible was once a sweet-faced child, loved and raised by elders who don’t necessarily share the warped perspective on humanity that their boy has since adopted. When the father waits outside the town courtyard and hears a “Guilty” verdict being announced later in the film, he props his failing body against a car to gasp from his respirator. It’s heartbreaking.
After two trials conclude, things reach a crescendo during the prolonged final case of Shawn Berry, the most familiar of the three and a “hometown boy” with plentiful friends in the community. We see such acquaintances rationalize his involvement. “Being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” suggests one of Berry’s advocates, “is not the same as committing a crime.”
Another white Jasper resident admits, “When you know somebody, you want to cut him some slack.” Byrd’s family has a slightly different perspective, with one member declaring, “If you want mercy, show yourself to be merciful.”
Comic relief is supplied by a longtime racist living in a trailer with his pregnant wife and children. When the proud redneck reunites with one of the film’s directors after several weeks have passed, he’s asked if anything noteworthy has happened. “I got married,” the okie proclaims, like a “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” refugee hammered on Pabst Blue Ribbon and reeking of bongwater. “Er, was it last week? This week? What am I thinkin’?”
Ultimately, however, “The Two Towns of Jasper” is no laughing matter. Even as the final guilty verdict rings through the town’s crowded courtroom, and people file out to attend celebratory backyard barbecues and dance parties, the spirit of James Byrd hovers over the town, reminding us of how the past is destined to repeat itself, if we choose to forget it.