BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm Brooke Gladstone. Marco Williams who is black and Whitney Dow who is white were old friends, both of whom grew up to be filmmakers. It was a horrific racially motivated murder that brought the two men together in a working relationship. In 1998, James Byrd, Jr., a black man, was torn to pieces as he was dragged from the back of a truck in Jasper, Texas. As the murder trials got under way, Dow and Whitney decided they would make a movie in Jasper to place the crime in some sort of context. So the segregated their production. The black director and photographer would film the black citizens, the whites would film the whites, and the result is a film with an extraordinary degree of candor called Two Towns of Jasper. They join us now. Marco Williams, welcome to the show.
MARCO WILLIAMS: Thank you very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Whitney Dow, thanks for coming in.
WHITNEY DOW: Oh, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you two find yourself sometimes not on common ground in editing the film?
WHITNEY DOW: It was an exceedingly different process because-- we didn't review each other's footage for the entire year that we shot, so I never saw what he shot; he never saw what I shot. We would talk periodically, and if I happened to be going by his hotel room I might see a couple of frames that he shot, but we didn't, we didn't, we didn't view the stuff. Then we--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's amazing! Why did you make that choice?
WHITNEY DOW:Because we really wanted to give each other the opportunity to really immerse themselves in their own community and really find the story there without any advocacy from the other side - to say really - to be able to come back and say this is what I found. Once we completed shooting, we then worked independently of each other for 6 months with separate editors. I, you know, by happenstance I had a black editor, Marco had a white editor, and we cut scenes, sequences, ideas that showed what we had investigated, and then we presented that material to each other. So it was really 18 months before we even saw what each other was up to. Then we brought in a third editor and took those set of scenes and together we started to build a narrative out of those scenes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And what do you think you got that you wouldn't have gotten if-- the black director and cinematographer went to talk to white members of the community and the races were reversed on the other side? Give me an example.
WHITNEY DOW: There was a scene where a group of whites are sitting around the table and they're talking about why they use the word "nigger."
MAN: Yeah, I'm amazed at how easily offended people have become. I don't mind telling you - I was raised with the, with the word "nigger." But it had no negative connotation in my life.
WHITNEY DOW: They're all sort of agreeing with each other sitting around the table -- yeah, I never thought it was wrong. I never thought it was wrong. So it, it's that type of thing. I think that with Marco in that situation, there's no way that they would have been as frank in their discussion of that word as they would with me there.
MARCO WILLIAMS: I think that the-- the evidence of this approach being effective within the black community is somewhat more subtle. One scene is of Walter Diggles. He is most prominent bureaucrat in the town. He's the head of an organization, a county organization. And he's on a driving range.
WALTER DIGGLES: [HITS GOLF BALL] Yeah, man, that's a good-hit ball. [LAUGHS] There's still a problem in this country with the perception of blacks that you and I are not going to be able to just erase, because we can't control the heart of somebody else. We can't change a white man's heart.
MARCO WILLIAMS: On first blush you'd say he's talking -- if he was talking across race, he's talking about we as black people - but in fact he's really saying we -- myself - Jonathan, the cameraman - both black men there -- you know, you know what, Marco? We're - we can't tell what's in a white person's heart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there a scene where both of you agree --God, we just nailed that? We could not have gotten it any other way.
MARCO WILLIAMS:The confrontation between Ethel Parks and Louis Berry on the courthouse lawn during the third trial where this is the only time in the course of the entire film where black and white face off with each other. The white crew is on one side, filming their white character and the black crew is on the other side, filming their black character. That allows us to intercut it seamlessly like a fiction film.
ETHEL PARKS: ...these tattoos.
LOUIS BERRY: The tattoos--
ETHEL PARKS: That was a symbol that he didn't like black people - those tattoos. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
LOUIS BERRY: Right. Right. The tattoos were bad; we don't agree with them.
ETHEL PARKS: I have a lot of pity for him, but do you realize, if he don't get the death penalty he goes to prison--
WOMEN: He's gonna die.
ETHEL PARKS: -- he's gonna die anyway or he's going to be tortured. Do you realize this? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
WOMEN: He's gonna die.
LOUIS BERRY: I do realize this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm still not clear on how your two intentions collided.
WHITNEY DOW: Let me, let me give you an example. You're cutting a sequence on, you know, any subject; is the first scene in that sequence with a black person? Is the last one with a white person? Who sets the agenda for the sequence? Who seems to be the driving force? Editing is a very subjective process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did your relationship change? Did it bring you closer or further apart?
WHITNEY DOW:How deeply we are divided by our cultures is, was not apparent to me before we started the project, and I think that -- I recognize now that the gulf that divides us, because simply growing up as a white American, him growing up as a black American, is much greater than I thought and not necessarily bridgeable in my mind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marco?
MARCO WILLIAMS:I don't think I entered into this with this naivete or of optimism that, you know, we shall overcome. But I did feel profoundly disturbed by how deep the chasm of our racial experiences are and that friendship alone doesn't bridge it and that there's much more needed to really get to an understanding which I think is the positive of what Whitney and I went through. We essentially had to roll up our sleeves and confront the racial divide on a daily basis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What one is left with after seeing the film is the sense that things have changed but they can never really be resolved.
WHITNEY DOW:Yes, things have changed, but they aren't resolved. But: there is the potential for individual change within all of us, and that to look for wholesale sea change is perhaps not where we should be looking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marco?
MARCO WILLIAMS:In my view, it's not enough for us just to see one individual white person change or another. It's that we want to see a greater social change. I believe that for white people it's much harder to understand the nature of the institutional racisms, and, and that's what I like about our film, and I think this is where we're quite successful is that our respective viewpoints as filmmakers, our respective viewpoints as a black and white man, and the multifaceted viewpoints of a town are represented.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Marco Williams.
MARCO WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Whitney Dow, thanks to you.
WHITNEY DOW: Thank you very much for having us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Whitney Dow and Marco Williams directed Two Towns of Jasper. [MUSIC]