In 1970, Reverend Vernon Tyson moved his family to Oxford, North Carolina, as the new minister to the city’s all-white Methodist Church. When he invited an eminent black minister to preach at the church, the congregation was up in arms, and eventually he was asked to step down from his position.
Tyson’s son Tim was only 10 years old at the time, but the incident, and the murder of a returning black Vietnam soldier by a racist white family, which led to a peace march that went from Oxford to the state capitol, made such an impression on him, when he grew up he wrote the book, Blood Done Sign My Name, which was published in 2004.
Jeb Stuart was also a child at that time, living in western North Carolina. When he read Tim Tyson’s book, he knew he wanted to bring it to the screen, and he wrote the screenplay and directed the movie Blood Done Sign My Name.
I spoke with Jeb Stuart and Ricky Schroder, who portrays Reverend Vernon Tyson, last week in Los Angeles.
Did you know about this story before you read the script?
Ricky Schroder: No, it was an unknown story to me until I read the screenplay. I think there have been a lot of unsung heroes in the civil rights movement over the years, and this is one of those stories of a family.
Jeb Stuart: I was in the western part of the state, which is like growing up in Redding and hearing about something that happened in San Diego, North Carolina is a long state.
I did hear about the murder, or I may have heard about the march, which was more dramatic in many ways, because suddenly for the first time in North Carolina you were putting thousands of African Americans on the street walking to the capitol.
That’s something to sit up and take notice about, if you are in the white part of North Carolina.
Why were you drawn to do this story?
Jeb Stuart: One of the things I felt Hollywood, (and when I say that, I guess I mean white Hollywood), has never done well, is tell a story where the white lead doesn’t fail to save the day for the blacks. I’m generalizing, but there’s a lot of history on my side.
Mississippi Burning goes so far as to create FBI investigators to save the day, when the facts show that helping the civil rights cause was NOT high on its list of priorities.
Even classics like To Kill a Mockingbird portray a wise southern lawyer brave enough to stand up for poorer blacks And The Blind Side, which is a wonderful story, might be sending the message that the best thing for a troubled African American youth is adoption by an affluent white family!
From its earliest inception, I thought of Blood as the Anti-To Kill a Mockingbird Story. At the end of Blood, the white hero does the right thing but is run out of town for his efforts.
How did you get involved with Blood Done Sign My Name, Ricky?
Ricky Schroder: I got a call about three days before I showed up in North Carolina, so obviously I was the right guy for the job but it took them awhile to figure that out. They threw me right into the pulpit.
Who knows what chain of events bring people where they bring them, but I learned a lot from it. I took pieces of Reverend Tyson with me, and I know I became a kinder, nicer person.
How scary was it to take a movie that started in three days?
Ricky Schroder: I’ve never done that before. I read the script right away and soon as I read the first scene with my character I knew, it was an instant reaction for me.
Vernon is still alive; did you get a chance to chat with him and if you did, he’s not famous, how important was it to capture his personality?
Ricky Schroder: It’s important to capture the essence of the man, because I don’t look like him, he’s a big guy with a big, deep voice, but he smiles and he’s kind and he’s an optimist, and he believes all men are equal.
Jeb Stuart: Rick spent a lot of time with Vernon and he came back to me and he said, ‘I know this guy, he’s a happy warrior.’
He will fight anybody with a smile on his face, and he will outlast you, he will wear you down, the optimism comes through, at the same time after you spend a few minutes with him you realize, his optimism is based on a real hard life that knows what life is all about, it’s not just a pie-in-the-sky optimism.
Ricky Schroder: And you know what he said to me? I said, ‘Why are you so optimistic?’ He said, ‘I read the book, and I know the good guys win.’ He never doubted it, he was ahead of his time, but he read the good book.
He didn’t mean the good guys win this week, he meant in God’s time. He’s John Wayne, he’s bigger than life, he’s a hero; he’s the good guy.
Why do you think Blood Done Sign My Name is an important film now?
Ricky Schroder: I think this movie’s an important movie because it shows, I believe, how far we have come, and we have come a great deal in 40 years.
I didn’t live through the civil rights movement, kids with their history books tune their teachers out, but maybe with this kind of movie my son will watch it and see what it was like to be a black in 1970 in the south.