On June 7, 1998, in Jasper, Texas, three white men offered a ride to a black man, James Byrd, Jr., in a pickup truck. White supremacists, they seized their quarry and tied him by his ankles with a logging chain to the back of the truck. For three miles they dragged Byrd, swerving from side to side. Byrd remained conscious most of the way but had one arm severed, and was ultimately decapitated, by the rough journey. The truck kept on, and the three whites deposited Byrd’s mutilated corpse at an African-American cemetery. Texas, as a result, passed hate crimes legislation, which in turn led to the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law on October 28, 2009.
Belgian-born Chantal Äkerman, her generation’s greatest filmmaker, went to the south United States with the intention of discharging a debt to an American author she loved: William Faulkner. However, the subject matter of her planned documentary changed once she heard of Byrd’s ordeal and death. The result is Sud, meaning, South.
The film is intensely personal—symbolically, autobiographical. The lovely opening long-shots might be capturing the establishing shots of the original film that Äkerman had in mind to make. Only, the buzzing sounds of both a power tool and an overhead airplane, disrupting the silence, disconcert.
Keeping herself unheard and invisible, Äkerman records a black woman’s recollection of white-black relations and white spite once blacks drew draughts of independent spirit from the American Civil Rights Movement in the sixties.
Äkerman’s observations and interviews culminate in a reënactment of Byrd’s journey, enjoined perhaps by his spirit, the camera watching the road slip by from the back of the truck.
The silence is sacred. The darkness is iridescent.
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