Though he took the movement to the mountaintop, the civil rights struggle didn't begin and end with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a point this grinding, earnest little picture works overtime to illustrate. If the title makes it sound like a chitlin-circuit comedy, the solidly bland direction by Jeb Stuart makes it feel like a made-for-cable movie, though one with noble intentions. Stuart once punched up action screenplays such as Die Hard, which is funny because this drama could use a jolt of adrenaline.
Set in an early '70s North Carolina town so bucolic you can almost taste the peach cobbler, the film, based on Timothy Tyson's memoir, very patiently unfurls a yarn about the true-life murder of a young black Vietnam vet, a senseless act of violence that sets long, simmering tensions to full boil.
The film splits the burden of heroism between white liberal Methodist pastor Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder) and young African-American schoolteacher Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), a future NAACP leader whose political awakening is just beginning. Their sleepy town is still living under de facto Jim Crow, where blacks can't find jobs downtown, or even get the city council to reinstall the basketball hoops in the public parks. The community's frustration becomes outrage when Ben's cousin is beaten and shot by a bigoted shopkeeper and his sons, allegedly for insulting a white woman, and the trial becomes a circus. Chavis responds by organizing a march on the state capital, but others demand stronger action.
The rabble-rousers' passions get stirred by a dashiki-wearing dynamo amusingly named Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami), an agitator whose job is to travel to civil rights hotspots and stoke the flames.
His scenes, along with the murder and eventual riot, pack a charge that much of the film lacks, as it marches, in a plodding, inevitable way, toward a better future that, sadly, still seems just a bit further up the road.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].