In the final shot of Showtime's fluff promotional piece for Jasper, Texas, Louis Gossett, Jr. holds up a placard that says, "Racism – Stop It!" and says, "That's what [the film] says."
Unfortunately, he's right. Instead of using the tragedy of the lynching of James Byrd Jr. in 1998 to examine the roots of racism and what causes one person to hate another because of the superficiality of skin tone, Jasper, Texas is a two hour lecture, one that goes no more in depth than to tell us racism "is bad."
The made-for-Showtime production starts the morning after Byrd's body is found, having been dragged behind a pick-up truck and his head detached from his body. The case itself is an easy one to crack; evidence found at the scene points Sheriff Billy Rowles (Jon Voight) in the right direction, and the owner of the truck confesses and turns on his co-conspirators. Easy enough.
But the little country town of Jasper is well on its way to being overrun, first by the press in full "case of the week" mode and then by both the New Black Panther Party and the Ku Klux Klan. Rowles and Mayor R.C. Horn (Gossett) have to help the town heal, get justice for Byrd's family and make sure the escalating racial tension doesn't explode into a full-scale riot.
There's something oddly compelling about watching two people like Rowles and Horn accept a list of tasks this daunting, especially when neither wanted to be that involved. Rawles had to be cajoled into giving a public statement, while Horn doesn't want to even exert the simple power of running a "task force" on racism. But their reluctance is a sort of heroism in Jasper, Texas; the difference between the hero and everyone else is not that the hero doesn't fear, but that the hero acts despite his or her fear.
Both Voight and Gossett are spot on as the sheriff and mayor, respectively. But as the film rolls on, their characters become stale. In a time of the "flawed hero," two genuinely good people who always make the right decision become boring over time and, in some ways, strain credibility.
The more interesting figures in the film are Shawn Berry, Bill King and Russell Brewer. What motivated these three to do something so heinous? What deep inside these three has turned them into bigoted killers?
The movie never touches these questions or others. In fact, only Berry has much to say, as he's the one who turns on the other two. King's comments are pretty well confined to the odd profanity walking in and out of the courthouse, while Brewer is never again seen after his arrest.
"Why" is the hard question to answer in the case of James Byrd. Jasper, Texas sticks with the safe, easy route, telling the viewer the "what." What motivate the crime? Racism. What is racism? Bad. But it's only the first layer of a deep-rooted problem.