January 21, 2003

PBS' "Jasper" opens a dialogue about race
By Elizabeth Jensen

The Jasper, Texas, police report of James Byrd Jr.'s murder in 1998 reads like a grim horror story: Along the two miles of blacktop where the 49-year-old father of three was dragged, the sheriff found his T-shirt, tank top, shoes, dentures and, eventually, the item that was to identify him, his billfold. The crime harkened back to the days of segregation, with a black man chained behind a pickup truck and dragged until his body disintegrated, and the world was shocked by its ferocity. A slew of international press descended on the town and sized up its racial tensions in easily digestible nuggets for the evening news.

New York-based filmmakers Marco Williams and Whitney Dow thought there were deeper questions to ask, not just about this particular town or the South, but about how all Americans deal with race. And they had a way to dig for answers-a "conceit" as they call it-that would get behind the news. They went down to Jasper in December 1998, during the lead-up to the trials in 1999 of the three white perpetrators, to film Two Towns of Jasper. They had an all-white crew led by Dow, who is white, and an all-black crew led by Williams, who is black.

NEW YORK - Independent filmmakers often complain that they have a hard time finding outlets for their work in today's increasingly consolidated media landscape. But one new documentary, "Two Towns of Jasper," finds itself with an embarrassment of media riches this week. Not bad for a sober-themed documentary from PBS.

The 90-minute film looks at the Texas city where a black man, James Byrd Jr., was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death by three white men in a 1998 hate crime that shocked the nation. Filmmakers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams took two film crews, one all black and the other all white, to follow the aftermath of the killing, with each crew covering the subsequent trials from the perspective of its respective ethnic group. It was conceived as a way to get the two communities to open up in ways they might not have felt comfortable doing had a single filmmaker approached the topic.

The film, which received funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, will air at 9 pm Wednesday on PBS' "P.O.V.," a showcase for independent documentary work with a "point of view." But first, it will get an extraordinary push from the top-rated daytime syndicated show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and ABC's well-respected late-night news program "Nightline." Both are devoting their programs today to the film and the filmmakers.

Then, on Thursday, "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel heads to Jasper to moderate a 90-minute town meeting on the topic of race, "America in Black and White: Jasper, Texas," which will air at 9 pm on PBS. Later that night, "Nightline" will expand to one hour with excerpts from the town hall meeting and analysis.

"Oprah," which covered the Byrd murder extensively when it happened, often previews programs it finds interesting. And "Nightline," which has increasingly done joint ventures with PBS, has long focused on race in America, a story that executive producer Tom Bettag calls "the Achilles' heel of this society."

Nonetheless, the amount of air time being devoted to "Jasper" is much greater than the film might have received had it aired on, say, another big media outlet, such as NBC, CBS, or even ABC, which was offered the project before "P.O.V." picked it up.

"Nightline" passed on taking the show outright because, at 90 minutes, it was too big a project. But Bettag remained interested in some kind of joint venture even after "P.O.V." acquired the film. "This documentary is one of the best things I've seen done," Bettag said. "It's something we believe every American ought to see," which is why ABC is devoting so much time to the story.

When Cara Mertes, executive director of "P.O.V.," heard about the film, she thought, "It was a fantastic idea, but are they going to be able to do it? Will they be able to combine both perspectives and still create a single film? It's tough when there's only one person trying to construct a narrative and even harder when you're trying to mesh two narratives and keep the process going.

"They've done an outstanding job of it," she said, after what the filmmakers have acknowledged was a stressful process that at times tested their friendship.

Moreover, Mertes said, the film fit with the "P.O.V." mandate, which is to find films "that are springboards for discussion about contemporary issues," a discussion that "Nightline" and "Oprah" are helping provide. Mertes has been working with both programs for seven months putting this week together.

Despite the attention paid to "Jasper," Mertes said, independent filmmakers still have only limited broadcast access. "It's a rare producer who works with any of these commercial media outlets. Nobody is acquiring these films except PBS." With cable entities consolidating, she said, "there are fewer people to go talk to, and when you do get a commission, it's for less money and it's much more formulaic."

As for the attention, "it only looks like a lot because it never happens," she said. "I wish this happened for all of our shows."