Two Towns of Jasper

PBS Premiere: Jan. 22, 2003Check the broadcast schedule »

Ask the Filmmaker

Viewer Question: Although you had a black crew filming black residents and a white crew filming whites (which I think was a good idea though I bet some foundations did not!), was it known in Jasper that both crews were working on one production, and the footage would eventually be edited together by an "integrated" team? How do you think this affected the responses of the people being filmed? Were either group more guarded, thinking the production was "really" controlled by someone of another race?

Dow: Most of the people that I filmed did not know that there was someone else working with me on the film. After the film was completed and I told the people who participated, to a person they felt that it was a good idea and agreed that a black crew could not have gotten the same access I did. Your are right about the funders.

Williams: This is Marco. Initially, I didn't tell any of the black residents with the exception of members of James Byrd's family. When I did tell all of the black residents (by the end of the first trial), they were completely in support of the approach; they could not imagine talking about race, candidly with someone of the other race. Their lives had little honest contact with whites.

Viewer Question: For both of you, at any time did you feel uneasy and unsafe in Jasper?

Williams: I felt unsafe twice. My first trip to Jasper was late at night. I had visions of the opening scene of Mississippi Burning. The second time I felt unsafe I was driving to Huff Creek Road, the road on which James Byrd was murdered. I thought I was being followed. And as it turned out, initially a car was driving the same route as I was -- coincidentally. But when I turned onto Huff Creek Road, the car did start to follow me. About two miles down the road, I turned in to the parking lot of a small church, the car did as well and when I got out, expecting the worse, a black man got out of the other car. The man happened to be driving out to his family's home on Huff Creek Road. When he saw my car turn on the road, he became suspicious of me -- living on that road he knew most of the cars. We talked and he became someone that I filmed, although he did not make it into the film.

Dow: The only time I felt unsafe in Jasper was during my first visit two weeks after the murder. Both the KKK and the New Black Panthers were in town and tensions were running pretty high. Steven Miller (the white cinematographer) and I hiked about a mile into the woods to the place where James Byrd was beaten and first chained to the truck. I was so scared that I lost 10 pounds on that hike. There was just such a foreboding sense of violence in the air. Once I spent some time in Jasper and got to know its residents, I have rarely felt as welcome anywhere as I did in Jasper.

Viewer Question: Was there a particular scene that each of you really wanted to keep in the film that was eventually edited out?

Dow: There are numerous scenes that I wish were in the film, but if they did not drive the narrative forward they got cut. Most of the scenes that I really miss helped to explicate a character in some way. A particular scene I miss showed Mike Lout's dog pissing in the gauge that he uses to determine rainfall for his weather reports on KJAS, just as he bragged about its accuracy.

Williams: There were many. But one in particular was a scene at night-very beautiful to look at, at an auto body shop, where a group of black men, drinking and talking about the murder and their perceptions of whites. The most elegant and articulate among them is the mechanic. He gets out from under the car that he has been working on and precedes to describe his own experience of driving down Huff Creek Road soon after the murder. He recalls counting all the circles-seventy plus, that were indicators of where pieces of Mr. Byrd's body were found. His words were poignant and chilling.

Viewer Question: Now that the film is finished, and you are a little further away from it, and have seen viewers reactions to it, what would you change, if anything, about the film or about how the film has been pitched to the American public?

Williams: This is too complicated to answer simply. There is much that I wish were different. I wish more of James Byrd's family was in the film, more of the occasional anger that I heard, as well as the occasional expression of prejudice, and to have made more explicit what I was investigating within the black community: how do our actions contribute to our oppression?

Dow: I wish the film were more humorous (see above question). I think that some breaks in the emotional intensity of the film would have made it more watchable. I also wish that I had worked harder to get someone to participate who was more liberal. I feel that I represented the community accurately, but think the film would be more accessible to liberal viewers if I had given them someone they could directly culturally identify with.

Viewer Question: This is from an east Texan, far from home -- but one who knows Jasper -- one whose in-laws are buried in that cemetery -- on the white side of the fence. I made myself watch your documentary, and my heart ached all the way through the film. Mr. Williams, your focus on the intelligent and articulate Byrd family was outstanding. Mr. Dow: Why did you choose only the "redneck" view? I kept waiting to hear from the intelligent white person -- not a minister nor a law officer -- but the intelligent white person who would never join the "Bubba" club nor allow racist comments -- ever. Especially, I kept waiting for the voice of the white woman. We continue to be invisible ones -- those white southerners who worked hard for civil rights -- I do believe you could have found them in Jasper.

Dow: What? Ministers and Law Enforcement Officers aren't intelligent? These questions about a more liberal point of view and female representation on the white side have come up before. It was happenstance that most of the people I felt were important for the film were male: the DA, the Sheriff, Mike Lout, the defendants' families and Trent. At that point I was running out of real estate. I tried to make the Bubbas as representational of mainstream Jasper as possible. What they say in the film are things that I heard in many parts of the white community and not just at that table. As for liberal whites, I must say that, in my experience, they were in the distinct minority. I cannot tell you how many times I thought I was developing a relationship with someone who had an enlightened view of the world only to have this perception dashed when the discussion turned to race. I am not saying liberals didn't exist, I am just saying I did not run across too many of them. I hope you noticed that the only person to really speak her mind in the Bubbas was Evon.

Viewer Question: During Christmas dinner my mother-in-law made a racial slur. It bothered me then and it has eaten away at me ever since. I know it is my responsibility to do what I can to stop discrimination and to make the world a better place for everyone. I simply did not know what to say. And I hope that doesn't make me guilty like the three murderers, as was suggested on Oprah. If it does, God please forgive me. What should I say in such situations? What words do I use? I honestly don't know how to handle such situations.

Williams: I think the most important act or words at that moment is to express how you feel. You don't have to accuse someone of something, you don't have to be "trying to change" them at that moment. I would hope that you would find a way to say: I am offended, or hurt, or disturbed, bothered... whatever the feeling. In this way you make a small statement, you change the condition in which these words are spoken, you dignify yourself and perhaps those at the table might reflect on what you will have said.

Dow: If you speak honestly about how what she said made YOU feel, and don't make accusations, you should be all right. Try "The use of that word makes me feel uncomfortable and I wish you wouldn't use it in my presence" or for me it has become more of an imperative to speak up now that I have kids and I have become more direct "I find the use of that word offensive and I would appreciate it if you would not use it in front of my children." I must admit, though, since I made this film people are pretty careful about what they say around me.

Viewer Question: Is there a way I could give my condolences to the Byrd family? I'm a Native American woman and I would like to express how I feel that we are all God's children and that I was raised to not know color. Is there an address so that I can write them?

Dow: People who would like to be in touch with the Byrds can reach them at this website:

Williams: One way to communicate with the Byrd family is to write to them in care of the James Byrd Jr. foundation. Check our website --

Viewer Question: To what extent were you able to use your whiteness or your blackness to get information for the film and how did this strategy backfire?

Dow: I use my whiteness (consciously) everyday to get what I want, and I certainly used it to make this film. I don't think you can say that the strategy backfired, I think you can say that the strategy revealed something specific.

Williams: I didn't use my blackness. I am black. I communicated with those who are also black and we shared our common ground, our common experience with regard to race relations.

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Viewer Question: Sadly, racial hatred is easily taught by such role models as parents, teachers and pastors ... did Whitney or Marco witness any of the children of Jasper speaking, or through any other type of action, voicing a lack of tolerance for different races? Is anything being done in the schools to combat what the parents and grandparents are obviously trying to keep breeding into the children of this area?

Williams: The young people that I spoke with said that all was good between the races. But, as revealed in the town-hall meeting with Ted Koppel, the tendency of the young people is to associate with those like themselves and they gradually start to lose whatever common ground that enabled them to early in their lives be friends with someone of a different race.

Dow: People were very protective of their children while we were making the film. I could not get access to the high school. I hope you noticed how many scenes contained images of children listening to their parents and other adults. I agree that racism is hereditary.

Viewer Question: In the process of editing your film, what challenges did you face to portray the true feelings of Jasper's residents? What was the reaction of the people of the town of Jasper?

Williams: To remind that what I experienced was the experience of blacks in Jasper and blacks in general. All of the people who appear in the film, like the film.

Dow: It is very easy to manipulate a scene for your own ends. Show a cutaway of a smile after a comment and it is perceived one way, show a frown, and it is perceived another. I don't know if I portrayed the "true" feeling of Jasper residents, I tried to present an accurate picture of my experience in the town. During the edit, I always kept in mind that I would be going back to Jasper to show the film, and would have to face the people who appear in it. I told them upfront that they might not like the film, but I guaranteed them that I would do my best to accurately portray them. The best measure that we were successful in doing this was that when I showed it to them, to a person, they all liked it and felt that they were fairly represented. People who did not appear in the film had extremely strong reactions to the film, some positive and some negative.

Viewer Question: I have been astonished and dismayed at the hate mail that appeared on the Two Towns of Jasper discussion board. Could you make some comments on why your documentary and Koppel's town meeting elicited such angry, ignorant remarks, especially from a PBS site? My first comment to the board was about asking African Americans to forget the past. I stated that in Utah, where I live, no one tells the Mormons -- don't tell me about Joseph Smith being murdered -- I didn't do it. The response I got to my post was: "Why don't you go back to Africa?" I'd appreciate hearing your comments about what happened on this discussion board.

Dow: I was not shocked, I thought we would have a more virulent response, but I was dismayed that POV made the choice to censor the board. I believe it is important for people to know how deeply racism is embedded in our culture, and the type of views that are out there. If you do not engage someone you cannot change his beliefs, and if you only dialog with people who share your worldview, you cannot accomplish anything. I have rarely met someone with whom I disagreed that I could not convince my viewpoint had validity, and that is the first step in changing someone's view.

Williams: I have not yet had the chance to review the discussion board so I cannot speak to any particular remarks. But race and race relations is difficult if not impossible to bridge, consequently people tend to react from a place of vulnerability and that response is often emotional, negative, and ignorant. The good part of this type of response is that you know where a person is coming from and while you may not be able to change their views, you are given the opportunity to confront or communicate your own feelings in turn.

Viewer Question: I work in an architectural office of equal black/white employees. I was truly educated by Two Towns of Jasper, although not surprised. When I go back to work tomorrow, I'll probably not hear a word about the program, even though everyone may have viewed it. Is talking about race relations the best/only solution to combat hate or ignorance? What would you suggest we do to go from acknowledging each others existence (i.e. smiling, saying hello) to treating each other as equal (i.e. pay raises, better positions, etc.)? I can't make you love me, and laws or fining you for not doing so isn't love either (or racial equality, etc.).

Williams: It's a start. I think that the most important thing is to recognize that racism is not a problem outside of you. Every person is an integral part of the paradigm and has the power to change it. Do not underestimate the effect your day-to-day actions have on the world around you. I have found that once you recognize you can personally effect real change, you start seeing opportunities all around you.

Dow: What is at issue here is the real estate called common ground. You share common ground -- the work place. What other shared common ground real estate do you all share? Social engagements not sponsored by work -- who are your companions? Worship, holiday meals -- who are the people that you share this with? The difficult questions or conversations -- do you choose to avoid or are you willing to talk? I think that talking is a place to begin. I think sharing and finding common ground is the task at hand. Each of us must find this according to who we are and or what we are capable. What will you do?

Viewer Question: I wanted to bring up the issue of racism beyond black vs. white. Asian Americans have often been forgotten, passed over, and ignored. Perhaps because we are viewed as the "model minority," as the group to which all other racial groups should aspire, it pigeonholes Asian Americans to their place in this society. I live in an affluent part of San Diego, which is predominantly white and Asian (about 70/30). You see the definite division between the races and the unspoken feelings between Asians and whites. Although we may live literally next door to one another and walk our kids to school together, shop at the same supermarket, there is an unwritten rule among us that we do not associate with one another, and nor should our children. Many Asians feel invisible in this community. Racist attitudes are covert instead of overt here in Carmel Valley, California. I thought it would be quite an eye opener to see a documentary dealing with racism on a totally different level - beyond black and white. It's kind of a new form of the "R" word that has never really been examined at a closer level. Perhaps this could be the topic for a future project?

Dow: I hope that when you watched Two Towns of Jasper you recognized that it was not just about the division between black and white, but was about the misunderstanding and distrust that exist between any community that is divided by difference. The relationship between black and white Americans is, in my opinion, the longest standing and intractable division that exists in our country, but that does not mean that there are not conflicts between other communities that perhaps should be addressed in a film. Got any funding for this?

Williams: Personally, I feel that TTOJ is about difference, division across difference. While I do not know the part of San Diego that you live, I do imagine that you could make a film called two towns of ... The chasm that separates us exists because of an absence of equality, an absence of equal opportunity, because of the ease with which we stereotype those that we don't know and therefore don't understand. I feel that it is dangerous to remain invisible. For me, this is part of what I was considering in constructing the 'story' of the black community. Muted or absent rage at the beginning, revealing of some of that rage in the middle, overt expression of it by the end. This is a simplistic example of the need to be seen and heard. Jews remind us that they will never forget... other persecuted groups must be visible and remind that we matter and that we will not sit idly while being oppressed because we are different. I am trying to speak generally, so as to inspire. I am ill-equipped to speak specifically.