Facing up to the horror
The terrified screams of the African American man being kicked and beaten in a secluded rural area are almost drowned out by the rattle of the huge chain tied around his ankles. His eyes fill with disbelief as he watches a white man tie the other end of the chain to the back of a pickup truck. He screams again.
Fade to black.
But not for long. Because right now on television, viewers are being asked to watch, no matter how intense the scene.
Take that scene, from the fact-based “Jasper, Texas,” the Showtime film about the aftermath of the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. It may be troubling for most viewers, but it pales in comparison with later scenes showing the 49-year-old Byrd being dragged to his death. In several brief scenes sprinkled throughout the movie, Byrd yells in agony as the truck races down the dark country road.
Although the aim of most television programs is to keep eyeballs glued to the screen, “Jasper, Texas,” along with such TV movies as “Soldier’s Girl” and two projects last year about slain gay college student Matthew Shepard, centers on an unwatchable crime. Far from being bland entertainment, these are films about horrific real-life murders and tragedies that rival in brutality and detail the most graphic feature films. Rarely has the safe escape of the TV set turned so violent.
Andy of Mayberry this is not. This is anything but a sugarcoated TV show about country life. Nor is it cartoon horror like the “Scream” or “Nightmare on Elm Street” feature films.
Precisely because these films bring unspeakable horrors into the family room, the filmmakers must walk a fine line between authenticity and alienating mainstream audiences.
“It was important not to detach from the murder,” said Jonathan Estrin, who wrote the “Jasper, Texas” screenplay and is an executive producer on the project. “Our challenge was finding the balance between our desire to be truthful and our desire not to be pornographic about what happened. We also knew that we had to make it powerful and graphic, but not to the extent where it would be a turnoff.”
Jerry Offsay, president of Showtime, acknowledged that both “Soldier’s Girl” and “Jasper, Texas” contain moments “where a segment of the audience will want to close their eyes or turn their heads. But if they stay with the story, hopefully they will feel glad at the end that they went thought the journey and experience.”
“How to show incidents like this is a very complicated situation,” said Trevor Walton, senior vice president of movies for Lifetime Television, which often airs movies based on tales ripped from the headlines.
“As a general rule, I believe less is more. It’s important that the viewer knows that an act of violence is about to occur so they can understand how awful it is. But I feel it’s not essential to show a lot of detail.”
Bryd’s murder takes up relatively little screen time in the two-hour “Jasper, Texas.” The incident is used as a launching pad for the larger story of how the hate crime forced a small community to confront and heal its racial divide. Byrd and his murderers are minor characters in the story.
Still, the filmmakers are more than aware that the unflinching depiction of Byrd’s death will leave an unsettling impression on many who tune in. Investigators discuss how he shifted his weight to relieve the pain while being dragged, and how his body was dismembered. At the trial of one of his attackers, the jury is shown blown-up photos of Byrd’s scarred, scraped and headless body.
“Every viewer will bring their own experiences and tolerance for violence to watching this, and there are some things that will be too explicit for some,” said Michael Greene, an executive producer of “Jasper, Texas.”
“This is an extremely dark place to go to, and there was continuing dialogue and questioning about what the borders are.”
Showtime on May 31 unveiled another original film, “Soldier’s Girl,” the true story about a romance between Pfc. Barry Winchell and transgender nightclub performer Calpernia Addams. As he slept in a corridor of his barracks, Winchell was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by two soldiers angered over the affair. The murder is shown graphically -- partially in slow motion -- with blood spraying over the walls and Winchell’s assailants.
It’s not simply that the looser, ad-free environment of premium cable enables those networks to do what’s forbidden on broadcast TV. In last year’s fact-based “The Matthew Shepard Story” on NBC, Shepard was shown being beat up and left to die after he was tied to a fence. There was no violence in HBO’s “The Laramie Project,” adapted from the acclaimed stage play based on interviews with townspeople about the murder.
Violence in true-life movies has been depicted in varying degrees. Both Fox and CBS aired 1994 movies about Lyle and Eric Menendez’s bloody shotgun killing of their parents.
NBC’s “Adam” in 1983 told the story of the abduction and murder of Adam Walsh, the young son of John Walsh, who went on to be the host of “America’s Most Wanted.” The murder is not shown, but in one scene, Walsh (Daniel J. Travanti) and his wife, Reve (JoBeth Williams), almost collapse with anguish after being informed of their son’s death.
The makers of “Jasper, Texas” were adamant that the horror of Byrd’s death not overwhelm the story they wanted to tell.
“The majority of our movie is about the aftermath of the murder and the healing that took place,” Estrin said.
The principal characters are Sheriff Billy Rowles (Jon Voight) and Mayor R.C. Horn (Louis Gossett Jr.). The two men must deal with each other and the tensions that arise in the town following the murder. They must also contend with the glare of the national media, the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers, who exploit the murder for their own rhetoric.
The dragging incident is shown in short flashbacks. Said Greene: “We wanted to present it in little doses, like the unraveling of details. It was a case of making an impact without pandering to the desire for gore as well as being so in-your-face that you can’t really watch it.
“The real story was not about the dragging and brutality, but the story of a town,” Greene continued. “The people who live there had really glossed over the racial differences that divided them. We wanted to make sure that the moments of the murder were not something that viewers would see in a vacuum.”
Still, the filmmakers said they often grappled with their own feelings of anger and pain during the movie’s filming in Toronto. Adding to the emotional tension was the presence of Jeff Byrd, a distant relative of James Byrd Jr., who was approached about directing before Showtime was aware of his connection to the family.
“It was pretty rough going at times,” Byrd recalled. “There was one time I was interviewing the production designer, who was showing me pictures of the actual road when James was dragged. It was too much for me. I had to leave the room.”
The script also had a big star drawn next to its most important sequence: the dragging scene.
To prepare for the scene, Byrd worked extensively with actor Roy T. Anderson, who not only played James Byrd Jr. but also was the stunt coordinator on the film.
“We wanted to make it as real as possible and not be exploitative,” Byrd said. “Roy and I broke it down really technically. We did tests on dragging things. We studied the tape from the trial. We did rehearsals in my office, when he moved his body around while pretending to be dragged, as if to protect himself from the pain. The last thing I wanted this to be was an action-movie sequence. I also wanted Roy to portray the emotion of a man who finds himself suddenly in a situation that he doesn’t understand.”
Filming the dragging scene also proved to be more daunting emotionally than the cast and crew had anticipated. The sequence was done on a rural Toronto road.
“There was a very solemn mood on the set,” said Greene. “It was very dark and very chilly. The banter that goes on during filming between the actors and the crew completely disappeared. We all felt we were in the presence of something unspeakable. We had all experienced it in media images, but there was not a person there that night who did not imagine what it was like to be at the end of that chain.”
He added, “We know that this is a very dark place we’re visiting. But if viewers can stick with it, I think they will be rewarded with a story that has many layers.”
When: Premieres at 8 tonight, with numerous repeat showings.
Rating: The network has rated the film TV-14VL (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for violence and coarse language).
Production credits: Written by Jonathan Estrin; executive produced by Estrin and Michael Greene; directed by Jeff Byrd.
Cast: Jon Voight, Louis Gossett Jr., Bokeem Woodbine, Joe Morton.