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Edgar Ray Killen going to court in 2005 (Photo: First Run Features)

NESHOBA: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM
Edited, Produced &Directed by
Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano
Produced by
Michel Saint-Jean
Written by Dickoff
Released by First Run Features
USA. 87 min. Not Rated   
 

Neshoba County, in central Mississippi, was on front pages around the world 46 years ago when the brutalized bodies of one black and two white civil rights workers were dredged out of a lake. Directors Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano do more than resurrect the optimism and terrors of the Freedom Summer of 1964, when northern students and local activists came together to directly challenge the Southís Jim Crow laws. They were confronted, officially, by police and, unofficially, by the Ku Klux Klan.

Beyond offering a history lesson that traces what happened there in June 1964 and in the dubious 1967 trial of 18 men (seven were convicted on federal conspiracy charges), the filmmakers find a new generation of blacks and whites trying to purge the county of its continuing complicity of silenceóthis coalition convinces prosecutors to reopen the case.

The screen frequently splits between a revealing selection of archival news footage (some quite graphic) with then-and-now interviews of those involved and affected, particularly the impassioned families of Mississippian James Chaney and New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. But the series of frank interviews with unrepentant preacher Edgar Ray Killen, before and during his 2005 trial for masterminding their murders, is astonishing. (Alan Parkerís Mississippi Burning (1988) fictionalized the case and has been discredited for glorifying the FBIís contribution. Director Edgar J. Hoover, in fact, had refused even to establish a fully staffed office in the state.)

Unlike recent documentaries that seem directed at those unfamiliar with the period under examination (Emily and Sarah Kunstlerís William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe, Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmithís The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, or Brett Morgenís Chicago 10), this film provides a fresh perspective on history, especially the footage of the public support of the governorís segregationist Sovereignty Commission and the local Citizens Council. The latter included prominent residents who still justify their positions as respectable. Their actions, and the inactions against the killers, are directly linked to the stateís powerful Senator James Eastland, who blocked civil rights legislation as the judiciary committee chairman for over 20 years. With the red-baiting and anti-Semitism against the victims, Neshoba looks startlingly like the amnesiac ex-Nazi town satirized in Michael Verhoevenís The Nasty Girl.

Interviews bring out mixed feelings for reconciliation vs. forgetting the past, highlighted at the white enclave on the county fairgrounds, where private cabins have been passed down in families for generations, along with whispered lore about who really did what. (The segregated partying is as telling as the separate Mardi Gras in Margaret Brownís The Order of Myths.) The two sides (and itís not always whites vs. blacks) have different perceptions of the charges against Killen because he was not present at the horrific attacks, so they donít even agree about what justice would mean. Itís clear what it means for Goodmanís and Chaneyís elderly parents and Schwernerís widow when, 40 years later, they finally get their day in court with tremendous dignity.

Neshoba: The Price of Freedom cogently and movingly demonstrates how the U.S., even with its first African-American president, canít be post-racial until it deals with its living history of racism. It also proves Faulknerís declaration about his fictional Mississippi, that ďThe past is never dead. Itís not even past.Ē A dogged investigative reporter emphasizes that five men, still living, have been implicated but never charged in these killings, and the names of civil rights activists whose deaths have not been prosecuted roll by with the credits, including the other six men whose bodies were pulled out of that notorious lake that summer. Nora Lee Mandel
August 13, 2010

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