As racism continues to plague America, PBS revisits one of the country's most infamous hate crimes in recent memory. The 1998 "dragging death" of a black man in East Texas is examined in Two Towns of Jasper, a documentary on Vermont Public Television Wednesday, January 22, at 9 p.m. At the same time on Thursday, ABC newsman Ted Koppel hosts a live town meeting from Jasper.
The young Two Towns filmmakers, Whitney Dow and Marco Williams, traveled to the Lone Star State in 1999 to cover successive trials of the three local men arrested for killing James Byrd Jr. The accused -- including two avowed white supremacists who have Ku Klux Klan tattoos to prove it -- beat the victim, spray-painted his face and chained him to the back of a pickup truck. Their three-mile drive on an asphalt road decapitated the body.
In exploring both sides of Jasper's racial divide, Dow and Williams wisely decided on two crews, one black and one white, to interview townspeople according to skin color. The documentarians employ a sort of cinema verite approach to capture candid conversations in the historically insulated communities.
At an African-American beauty parlor, patrons demonstrate skepticism that justice will be done, but a determination to abide by the law. "We didn't burn anything," one woman points out. "We didn't go out and do an eye for an eye."
At a daily gathering of the all-Caucasian "Bubbas in Training" breakfast club, some members express chilling views. "I think he should be judged by the way he lived, not the way he died," contends one male Bubba, suggesting that Byrd's personal demons somehow overshadow his slaughter by the good ol' boy Aryans.
In some ways, Jasper is fairly enlightened. The mayor and several other civic leaders are black. With the media spotlight on them, residents tear down a fence between segregated sections of the town's only cemetery -- a separation everyone previously just took for granted. The white district attorney pledges diligence in prosecuting the capital-murder case.
But while the D.A. tries to improve the nation's image of rural Texas, other officials announce that the schools will not observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. This causes an uproar. Some citizens wonder why Jasper's children are excused from classes on Rodeo Day. Footage of this festivity, which predominantly appeals to whites, reveals a parade with the Confed-erate flag on display.
Dow and Williams have not entirely mastered the medium -- the narrative seems choppy at times -- but their project is utterly thought-provoking. Race remains a topic that confounds us, everywhere.
The Savoy Theater in Montpelier always tries to create a little sizzle with adventurous motion-picture events -- especially welcome when the temperatures plunge. The World Cinema Series, which continues through March 9, offers two afternoon screenings each weekend of selections from Germany, England, France, Iran, Ireland, Italy and the United States. Between March 21 and 30, the globe will be particularly well-represented as the Green Mountain Film Festival unspools almost 30 features and documentaries. The fare, from Chile, Turkey, Russia, Maurita-nia and other far-flung places, is eclectic.
Some potential highlights: Das Experiment, in which psychology research goes awry at a simulated prison; All or Nothing, writer-director Mike Leigh's potent domestic drama; Amen, by Constantin Costa-Gavras, who dares to question why Pope Pius XII failed to speak out against the Holocaust; Strange Fruit, a look at the legacy of a song about lynchings that was popularized by Billie Holiday; Blackboards, about itinerant teachers attempting to bring literacy to impoverished people living along the Iran-Iraq border.
The fest includes two entries from the Green Mountain State: Bess O'Brien's Here Today, which tackles heroin use in the Northeast Kingdom; and the New England premiere of Nosey Parker, the John O'Brien movie about a citified couple adjusting to countrified ways.
And All This Madness, by Walter Ungerer, is subtitled A Documentary About 9/11, the Aftermath. The Montpelier filmmaker shot near the World Trade Center in the weeks following the terrorist attacks, then queried people back home about their perspectives on the geopolitical situation. He'll screen the results at the University of Vermont's Lafayette Building, Room 108, at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 19. Con-sidering the Bush administration's current imbroglios with Iraq and North Korea, the world seems to be getting madder every day.