Here is the number-one rule when making a high-minded message picture: You need a high-minded message. Jeb Stuart’s Blood Done Sign My Name sure has one. It boils down to the shocking notion that racism is bad. Actually, this attempt at noble virtue is about all that Stuart’s film has going for it. There’s certainly no identity to the movie, which skips between having vague Christian leanings to period-piece attributes to John Grisham-styled courtroom drama and beyond, never managing to nail down any of these consistently. Clocking in at more than two hours, all this adds up to a film that wanders around more than Moses and ends up committing the cardinal sin of movies by being just plain dull, the cinematic equivalent of a giant yawn.
This is unfortunate, since the source material—Tim Tyson’s book of the same name—and the subject matter hint towards something more complex than what writer/director Stuart has committed to film. The movie is based on Tyson’s own experiences growing up in 1970s North Carolina and the racial tensions he witnessed after the murder of a black Vietnam vet (A.C. Sanford) at the hands of a trio of whites. There’s an overriding sense of complexity that’s inherent in the material—such as the violent reaction the black community has to the crime despite existing in a post-Martin Luther King Jr. world—which Stuart never touches on in the film.
I suppose it should be no surprise that the man who once co-wrote Die Hard (1988) has no grasp of ambiguity, but the unimaginative directorial approach Stuart has taken amounts to nothing more than laying out the events of Tyson’s book verbatim. The movie is just scenes strung together with little relation among one another. Characters—none of whom are fleshed out—pop in and out of the film willy-nilly to the point you need a scorecard to keep up with who is who. Entire plotlines feel pointless when examined with the rest of the film. I’m still not quite sure why the subplot involving local minister Vernon Tyson (Ricky Schroder, doing his best Mayberry accent) is even in the film. It goes absolutely nowhere (beyond giving the film its only sympathetic white characters) and only serves to gum up the works of an already laborious, boring movie.
If I had a list of the most superfluous films I’d ever seen, this one would be right up there. The big thing is that it’s carting around a heavy-handed message that’s already obvious to most. And for those to whom it may not be obvious, well, they’re probably not going to be watching—or convinced by—a glorified TV miniseries. Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of violence, thematic material involving racism, and for language.