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Facing up to the horror

TV movies that dramatize vicious crimes and their aftermaths have to walk a fine line: authentic but not so brutal that viewers are repelled.

June 08, 2003|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

The terrified screams of the African American man being kicked and beaten in a secluded rural area are almost drowned out by the rattle of the huge chain tied around his ankles. His eyes fill with disbelief as he watches a white man tie the other end of the chain to the back of a pickup truck. He screams again.

Fade to black.

But not for long. Because right now on television, viewers are being asked to watch, no matter how intense the scene.

Take that scene, from the fact-based "Jasper, Texas," the Showtime film about the aftermath of the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. It may be troubling for most viewers, but it pales in comparison with later scenes showing the 49-year-old Byrd being dragged to his death. In several brief scenes sprinkled throughout the movie, Byrd yells in agony as the truck races down the dark country road.

Although the aim of most television programs is to keep eyeballs glued to the screen, "Jasper, Texas," along with such TV movies as "Soldier's Girl" and two projects last year about slain gay college student Matthew Shepard, centers on an unwatchable crime. Far from being bland entertainment, these are films about horrific real-life murders and tragedies that rival in brutality and detail the most graphic feature films. Rarely has the safe escape of the TV set turned so violent.

Andy of Mayberry this is not. This is anything but a sugarcoated TV show about country life. Nor is it cartoon horror like the "Scream" or "Nightmare on Elm Street" feature films.

Precisely because these films bring unspeakable horrors into the family room, the filmmakers must walk a fine line between authenticity and alienating mainstream audiences.

"It was important not to detach from the murder," said Jonathan Estrin, who wrote the "Jasper, Texas" screenplay and is an executive producer on the project. "Our challenge was finding the balance between our desire to be truthful and our desire not to be pornographic about what happened. We also knew that we had to make it powerful and graphic, but not to the extent where it would be a turnoff."

Jerry Offsay, president of Showtime, acknowledged that both "Soldier's Girl" and "Jasper, Texas" contain moments "where a segment of the audience will want to close their eyes or turn their heads. But if they stay with the story, hopefully they will feel glad at the end that they went thought the journey and experience."

"How to show incidents like this is a very complicated situation," said Trevor Walton, senior vice president of movies for Lifetime Television, which often airs movies based on tales ripped from the headlines.

"As a general rule, I believe less is more. It's important that the viewer knows that an act of violence is about to occur so they can understand how awful it is. But I feel it's not essential to show a lot of detail."

Bryd's murder takes up relatively little screen time in the two-hour "Jasper, Texas." The incident is used as a launching pad for the larger story of how the hate crime forced a small community to confront and heal its racial divide. Byrd and his murderers are minor characters in the story.

Still, the filmmakers are more than aware that the unflinching depiction of Byrd's death will leave an unsettling impression on many who tune in. Investigators discuss how he shifted his weight to relieve the pain while being dragged, and how his body was dismembered. At the trial of one of his attackers, the jury is shown blown-up photos of Byrd's scarred, scraped and headless body.

"Every viewer will bring their own experiences and tolerance for violence to watching this, and there are some things that will be too explicit for some," said Michael Greene, an executive producer of "Jasper, Texas."

"This is an extremely dark place to go to, and there was continuing dialogue and questioning about what the borders are."

Graphic accounts

Showtime on May 31 unveiled another original film, "Soldier's Girl," the true story about a romance between Pfc. Barry Winchell and transgender nightclub performer Calpernia Addams. As he slept in a corridor of his barracks, Winchell was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by two soldiers angered over the affair. The murder is shown graphically -- partially in slow motion -- with blood spraying over the walls and Winchell's assailants.

It's not simply that the looser, ad-free environment of premium cable enables those networks to do what's forbidden on broadcast TV. In last year's fact-based "The Matthew Shepard Story" on NBC, Shepard was shown being beat up and left to die after he was tied to a fence. There was no violence in HBO's "The Laramie Project," adapted from the acclaimed stage play based on interviews with townspeople about the murder.

Violence in true-life movies has been depicted in varying degrees. Both Fox and CBS aired 1994 movies about Lyle and Eric Menendez's bloody shotgun killing of their parents.

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