Death and Texas

A Town on Trial: Joe Morton, Jon Voight, Kate Trotter, and Lou Gossett Jr. in the very well-cast Jasper, Texas.Photo: Russ Martin/Showtime

With the chaining of a 49-year-old black man by his ankles to a pickup truck and the dragging of his body two miles down a dirt road, what we got five years ago in Jasper, Texas, was nothing less than a horizontal lynching. At least, that’s the story I told myself about the murder of James Byrd Jr. But there were other stories that other people told themselves. The sheriff, who was white, and the mayor, who was black, wanted to believe their town was better than this savagery. The Black Panthers from Houston had a different idea when they showed up in uniform, with guns, the day of Byrd’s funeral. So did the Ku Klux Klan, in their usual dress whites, at the trial of one of the killers. And the media authorized its own righteous version, waving mikes, rolling cameras, and shouting questions: Of such a hate crime, a whole town must be collectively guilty.

Jasper, Texas, a docudrama written and executive-produced by Jonathan Estrin, is the story of all of these stories being assembled to tell us what and how to think and feel. The point of view, while squarely in the TV-movie social-worker-uplift mode, is twinned. Neither Jon Voight, as the aw-shucks sheriff, nor Louis Gossett Jr., as Jasper’s first black mayor, is really up to strutting on a world-historical stage. Instead of being resentful, a self-doubting Voight is actually relieved when the FBI arrives. Instead of attitudinizing for the cameras, a tentative and diminished Gossett would rather sit in a dark room listening to the strategic counsel of his old buddy Joe Morton. But it’s their town everybody else is making up stories about—and so they must collaborate.

What distinguishes Jasper, Texas is not inside info (we knew all this if we’d read the papers), not suspense (the young killers are arrested early on), and not catharsis (perhaps pity, certainly terror, but no purging). It is performance. Rather than sack out on the casting after snaring Voight and Gossett as leads, and Morton to amplify and resonate, the movie surrounds them with shrewdly selected role-players, from Blu Mankuma as the victim’s father, James Byrd Sr., to Bokeem Woodbine as the mouthy Panther Khalid X, to Kate Trotter as Voight’s worried wife, Jamie Rowles. Even the gatherings of church congregations and task-force conscripts have a composed feel. To be sure, we don’t hear any of the defense at the one trial we sit in on. But then, what happened was indefensible. How we explain it to ourselves is, well, another story.

Big Eden played in a handful of theaters about the same time Legally Blonde came out a couple of years ago. It seemed to me then that they were matching fables. If Reese Witherspoon, as a member of an oppressed minority of cute blondes, could triumph over prejudice at Harvard Law, why shouldn’t Arye Gross, as a gay artist with a big exhibit and a broken heart in Manhattan, find true happiness by returning to the small Montana town where he grew up? Gross’s Henry goes back to Big Eden when his grandfather (George Coe) has a stroke. Surprise, surprise: His high-school sweetheart has likewise returned, from a bad marriage. The fact that this high-school sweetheart was also the high-school quarterback (Tim DeKay) might be a problem in some other cowboy town, but not in Eden, where Louise Fletcher is the teacher, Nan Martin is the busybody, and O’Neal Compton is the local good old boy and, from the Fourth of July to Thanksgiving—while they eat, draw, build, sing, and dance—everybody agrees that Henry would be better off with Pike (Eric Schweig), the Native American gourmet cook who runs the general store, than any bygone quarterback.

So Big Eden—in which writer-director Thomas Bezucha imagines a sort of Northern Exposure Buddhist commune in Montana instead of Alaska, where nobody cares if you’re blond or gay, they just want you to be happy—is wishful thinking. What’s subversive about it is that it looks just like any other romantic comedy except that some men love other men. Imagine that: social justice, racial harmony, peaceable kingdoms, and a cup of cappuccino at the general store.

Daddy & Papa (June 15; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) follows four gay couples into parenthood through adoption, usually of a child of color, and the difficulties they face with race, neighborhood, legal discrimination, and their own intimate relationships. Wonderfully absorbing: “America’s nightmare!” says Kelly Wallace, a single gay parent. “A gay guy with two kids living in the Castro!”

He’s Having a Baby (June 4; 7 to 7:45 p.m.; Cinemax) is more of the above, this time focusing on Hollywood talent agent Jeff Danis, who decides at age 50 to become a father, whether his partner of twenty years, Don Pike, wants to or not. While some of this performing for the camera sounds like looking for the perfect accessory (a baby Prada!), and the decision-making anguish borders on the ludicrous (“It’s almost like Sophie’s Choice!”), Jeff and Don do end up in Vietnam, where they find a son they obviously love. And then Don tells us that he, too, had been adopted, at the same age.

Persona Non Grata (June 5; 7 to 8:15 p.m.; HBO) follows Oliver Stone and his crew to Israel, where they have about as much luck resolving the crisis in the Middle East as anybody else who’s tried. Stone talks most of the time to Shimon Peres; some of the time to Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak; and very little with the unlovely Yasser Arafat, who is usually being shot at. The crew also finds itself in the middle of a terror bombing and reprisals. The only surprise here is that, for once, Oliver Stone doesn’t tell us what to think.

Reel New York (June 6; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) launches its eighth season with a potlatch of whimsies that include the peregrinations in the postmodern consumer market of an entrepreneur-artist who sells crackers and thumbtacks, the Magritte-like adventures of a man in a suit in a bathtub in a harbor, a Nam June Paik digital-video montage, and an inspired coming-out from “the plasticine closet” of a guy named Steve: “Clay Pride: Being Clay in America.”

Uncensored Comedy: That’s Not Funny! (June 8; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Trio), in which comedians talk about when they cross the line by saying something offensive about race, sex, religion, or ethnicity—and what happens next—will be followed by a half-hour devoted to Sick Humor, which of course crossed the line a long time ago and is proud of it.

Jasper, Texas
(Sunday, June 8; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime).

Big Eden
(Friday, June 6; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Sundance).

Death and Texas