- Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017
Independent documentary series POV is streaming and rebroadcasting Two Towns of Jasper as a part of its 30th season this August. Originally presented in January 2003 during POV’s 15th season, the film explores race relations in the town of Jasper, Texas, following the brutal murder of a black man by white supremacists.
When James Byrd, Jr. was chained to a pick-up truck and dragged to his death by three white men in Jasper, Texas in 1998, his murder shocked the nation. On a June night, three young white men from the town—John King, Lawrence Brewer and Shawn Berry—went out for a drive. After some drinking, they picked up Byrd, a local man, chained him to the back of their truck and dragged him for three miles. Byrd was alive for much of this ordeal. Eventually his head was shorn off and his body disintegrated. It was a modern-day lynching.
Two Towns of Jasper, which received a 2003 George Foster Peabody Award and a 2004 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award, will have its encore broadcast on Monday, August 14, 2017 at 10 p.m. (check local listings) on PBS and will be streaming on pov.org and streaming devices through September 12, 2017. POV is American television’s longest-running series of independent nonfiction films.
Sharing the concerns of so many Americans, filmmakers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams wondered how and why this had happened. If an explanation was possible, they thought, who better than the citizens of Jasper to provide it, since both victim and perpetrators were locals. So Dow and Williams took to the streets of Jasper during the murderers’ trials to see what the town had to say. And they decided to do it with segregated crews: Williams, who is black, filmed the black community; Dow, who is white, filmed the white community. The resulting portrait in Two Towns of Jasper is an explicit accounting of the racial divide in America—a disturbing montage of contrasting realities that somehow inhabit the same place and time.
The filmmakers talked to 30 Jasper citizens—evenly divided between black and white—compiling 240 hours of video. What emerges first is an ostensibly integrated Southern town: Jasper has a black mayor and a diverse city council. The authorities moved vigorously to apprehend and prosecute the killers, anxious to show the world that Jasper was no place for racism.
But Two Towns of Jasper reveals a more troubled and nuanced reality behind the demonstrations of racial unity. Beneath honest outrage lurks a legacy of mutual distrust between blacks and whites—and wildly differing accounts of the state of race relations in the town.
Some whites in Jasper feel misunderstood over the negative attention the crime has attracted and claim complete surprise that such an atrocity could have occurred in their town. Others feel a need to point out the faults of James Byrd, Jr. One of Jasper’s white citizens, an avowed white supremacist, is neither shocked nor surprised by the crime. He sees the town’s reaction to it as a commentary on the true relationship between blacks and whites.
For Jasper’s African-Americans, the response to the crime is just another sign that they experience racism quite differently than the local white community. They recall a history of racist incidents and attitudes that pervade the town and the region. For them, Byrd’s murder is not an anomaly, but an extreme expression of a danger always felt lurking just beneath the surface. Oddly, however, few in either community speak out to confront these atrocities. In fact, it takes Byrd’s murder and the attendant media glare for a fence in the local cemetery that separates black from white to be removed.
Today, Williams believes the film’s continued relevance can still teach lessons, albeit grim ones. “It is ironic, tragic, yet real that a film about a horrific racially motivated murder that occurred nearly 20 years ago finds relevance in today’s America. Race relations, while demonstrably better, are still profoundly unstable. Two Towns of Jasper offers a lesson on the value of highlighting differences but also providing space for people to understand those differences.”
“Revelatory and sobering, Two Towns of Jasper and its encore broadcast invite renewed discussions about race in America,” said Chris White, executive producer of POV/American Documentary. “Fifteen years after its original broadcast, we once again examine states of division—these days it may seem they run through the entire country. Yet with their film, Dow and Williams broke through those barriers, bringing to light equally fascinating and unsettling revelations about the state of race relations. POV is excited to bring this film back to the public through streaming and broadcast.”
Two Towns of Jasper will stream for the 30-day stretch at POV.org, PBS.org and PBS Anywhere/Apple TV.