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Two tales of a town 

Documentary Two Towns of Jasper evokes The Laramie Project

One of the most notorious hate crimes of the 1990s put Jasper, Texas, on the map. On June 7, 1998, three white men chained African-American James Byrd to the back of a truck and fatally dragged him for three miles.

Over the course of the three separate murder trials of the accused, filmmakers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams interviewed the citizens of Jasper about their responses to the crime and the subsequent national spotlight. The documentary Two Towns of Jasper resembles the stage play and TV movie The Laramie Project, as both reconstruct a crime and meditate on prejudice. But Jasper benefits from the immediacy of being on the scene.

Introductory titles identify the production's behind-the-scenes conceit: An all-black film crew interviewed Jasper's black citizens, and a white one recorded the whites. The decision seems to have paid off, as the interviewees prove more candid about racial attitudes and inequities than they may have been otherwise.

Over the course of the murder trials, Two Towns returns to an intriguing cast of characters, including the grieving family of James Byrd and the distraught brother of one of the accused murderers. Frequently the film takes an outside-looking-in perspective on the case, finding rival Greek choruses at an African-American beauty parlor and a local restaurant frequented by self-described "Bubbas." One of the film's most chillingly compelling subjects is a former prison inmate covered with pro-Aryan tattoos, whose feelings about race become less confrontational as time goes by.

Presented by IMAGE Film & Video Center and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Two Towns also chronicles townspeople's debates over the MLK Day holiday and a fence separating the black and white sections of the town cemetery. The civic arguments may represent fitful steps toward improved race relations, but they're steps nonetheless. Two Towns of Jasper illustrates that despite the existence of virulent bigotry, racial progress is the wave of the future, though it may seem maddeningly slow.

Two Towns of Jasper screens May 16 at 7 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, 450 Auburn Ave. Free.

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