Remembering an Individual’s Impact

film-south
The funeral of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas from Chantal Akerman’s “South” [Image Courtesy of Arts Emerson]
My last historically oriented blog post mentioned Chantal Akerman’s 2002 documentary about the Mexican/American border titled “From the Other Side”. I had used it as one of my examples for looking at individual stories rather than blindly accepting overgeneralizations and stereotypes as a means of understanding said individual.

Recently, I watched another one of Akerman’s films, “Sud” or “South” as it’s otherwise known. This 1999 documentary again orients itself in the United States but focuses on racial tensions and crimes in the Southern states – as the film’s name would suggest – rather than on the border.

To accomplish this, Akerman dedicates the entire 70-minute run time of the movie to the 1998 James Byrd Jr. murder case in Jasper, Texas. I’ll leave a link to the small summary and tribute to the event from the Anti-Defamation League here, which I feel does a good job catching those unfamiliar with the case up to speed without the more graphic particulars of the murder seen in the interviews throughout “South”.

The movie does a really phenomenal job at characterizing the context of a town around which this sort of atrocity might occur. There are long takes and scenic “drive-by” camera shots throughout that show off different parts of the Southern town, each area of the town giving off a different impression. The streets are lined with dilapidated structures even toward what seems to be the center of town, the swampy outskirts almost seem unkempt and dangerous, the church where Mr. Byrd’s funeral procession is held is full of energy and communal understanding, and the roads running all over begin to feel more sinister and eerie as you realize Akerman chose to showcase the roads where Mr. Byrd’s body was dragged.

The overall feeling in Jasper leaves you with distinct impressions of “poor, backwater town” stereotypes one might come to when thinking about small places hidden away in the deeper parts of the Bible Belt. This is probably the point to some extent, as Jasper could be seen as a larger representation of the region as a whole. Of course, this brings to mind my last post again, in which I addressed the idea that stereotypes tend to be seeped in elements of reality even when completely over embellished or used for negative purposes.

One of the key things I took away from “South” that made me want to discuss it was the impression it gave about the state of modern racism and how it affects individuals, despite being an attitude generally targeting an entire group of people. During his interview with Akerman, the sheriff of Jasper comments on the hate crime the town had so recently become known for. Trying to dance around the issue of race, he talks about the economic problems in Jasper being a primary cause of the issues and tensions, going so far as to say that Jasper has “less racial problems” than most places in the United States.

Personally, my next question to the sheriff after hearing a comment like that would have been something along the lines of, “Even if your town has a better record than most, why is it acceptable to have any sort of record in that field?” Perhaps Akerman asked this and it wasn’t shown in the film, but if that were the case there would be no way of knowing it.

Thinking about the individuals involved in these sorts of worldly issues, be it border management or hate crimes, seems (to me at least) to be the best approach in terms of addressing such difficult topics. Just as it can be hard to remember that every illegal immigrant crossing the border is someone who has lived a full life leading up to the moment of their crossing, it can be hard to remember that even if “racial problems” are less common statistically, there are still people who are victims to the crimes which make up even the smallest sliver of a pie chart.

In the church where Mr. Byrd’s funeral procession occurred, “South” showed how many people came to pay their respects for the deceased man and even showed some of the speeches his family members gave. James Byrd Jr. had touched every person in that room in some way, and it’s likely none of them were exactly the same after he was killed. In every single case similar to this there are undoubtedly people who are affected in large, rippling waves by a single person’s death. If that death is for something as senseless as animosity or blind hate due to skin color, then the pain it causes is equally as senseless.

The primary issue with this kind of blind hatred, unfortunately, is that it’s likely near impossible to imagine for some people. Due to things like one’s upbringing and education, many people have hate ingrained in their personality. It’s almost a futile effort to change the way someone feels at their core; human beings aren’t wired to accept that they’re being proven wrong in some way that contradicts what they’ve always known.

I’m not saying this justifies the actions those individuals might take, but I am saying that it’s an issue that could be worked on in the future. Children are wholly impressionable and malleable beings: “Tabula Rasa” as the Latin phrase suggests, blank slates waiting to be given words to follow. If children were taught compassion and tolerance rather than blind hate that may be passed down from generation to generation, perhaps we could demolish the barbaric practice of taking criminal actions for something as arbitrary as race.

But until the day comes that we can accomplish this, we should still do our best to acknowledge that individual lives are greatly afflicted by such actions. Whatever you might do with this knowledge isn’t up to me, however. It’s up to you.


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