Screened as part of NZIFF 2002
"When the cops first found the battered, headless body on a back road in Jasper, Texas, they thought they were dealing with a simple hit-and-run accident. But soon the terrible truth became clear: the two-mile trail of reddish marks leading to the scene was made not by tires, but by blood, and the victim – James Byrd Jr, a local resident well-known in Jasper’s African American community – had been tied to a vehicle and dragged to his death. On coming to this grim conclusion, the sheriff – who was white – had one thought: he hoped white folks hadn’t done this.
As anyone who followed this disturbing case, which grabbed national headlines, is well aware, the perpetrators were white – three young men who shared an affinity for racist tattoos and groups like the Confederate Knights of America. In 1999, when the trial of each man was held, filmmakers Whitney Dow (who is white) and Marco Williams (who is black) traveled to southeast Texas and made Two Towns of Jasper. The documentary peels back the layers of a seemingly average American town. The center it reveals is as divided as Jasper’s cemetery, which as late as 1998 was split by a fence that segregated blacks from whites even in death.
Dow and Williams used a unique approach: an all-black crew documented black residents, and an all-white crew filmed whites. This technique eliminated potential racial barriers between subject and camera, and the payoff is sometimes ugly but always honest…
While the segments that focus on the crime and the trials are compelling, it’s the little details that allow Two Towns to paint such a poignant picture. During a high school assembly, a camera pan reveals that all the black kids are sitting together by choice, as are all the whites. During the town’s annual Rodeo Day parade (which features a black grand marshal), a float sails by bearing a noose and a sign reading ‘Frontier Justice’. The Martin Luther King Jr birthday holiday is canceled to create a makeup school day (‘They’re just doing what they normally do,’ sighs an African American pastor. ‘They didn’t realize it’s insensitive.’) The remarkably revealing Two Towns ends on a mixed note: two death-penalty verdicts and a life sentence later, Jasper’s most heinous criminals are punished – but we’ve yet to see the racism that has been entrenched in the town for so long really begin to fade." — Cheryl Eddy, San Francisco Bay Guardian