Monday, August 9, 2010

Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano's NESHOBA: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM opens a dreadful page of U.S. history that is bleeding still

The first section of the new documentary NESHOBA: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM, from filmmakers Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano, is so gut-wrenchingly sorrowful that it's an oddly mixed blessing when, as the movie prog-
resses, it becomes both easier to take and less effective. This may have more to do with the way in which events have played themselves out over the 46 years since the original murders around which the film is organized than with the skill of the filmmakers themselves. Still, had Dickoff and Pagano been able to maintain the passion and immediacy of their first third, they might have ended up with one of the most powerful, ground-breaking documentaries of modern times. (Or perhaps one so upsetting that viewers would squirm and head for an early exit.)

The subject is one that should spring immediately back to mind when three names are heard: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.  Yes, the three young civil-rights volunteer workers -- Chaney a 21-year-old local Mississippi man, Goodman (20) and Schwerner (24) both from New York -- who were cold-bloodedly murdered (above are shown their discovered remains) by the combined efforts of the local Neshoba County police department, including some lying office workers, and the Ku Klux Klan, who did the actual deed.  (This was also the alternately gussied-up and bowdlerized subject of the Hollywood narrative film Mississippi Burning.) As the young men were there to help the voter registration efforts of the local black population, a great hue and cry went up across most of the nation -- less so, of course, in our glorious southern states.

As bad as were the actual events, what followed (closely by and then over the decades) seemed even worse: a blind, sometimes blithe disregard for bringing the murderers to justice. This is the subject of Neshoba, and a circuitous one it turns out to be.  Dickoff (above, left) and Pagano (above, right) spend a lot of time with the parents of Goodman; the wife of Schwerner; and the mother (below, right), sister (below, center) and brother of Chaney. We see these people (in news clips and interviews) at the time of, first, the disappearance of the civil rights workers, then later as the deaths are uncovered, and finally at various points in recent years.

Initially the state of Mississippi refused to prosecute anyone, so the U.S. Justice Department had to prosecute eighteen people in its own 1967 trial (for depriving the three victims of their civil rights: murder tends to do that to a person), with sentences for those convicted ranging from three to ten years. One of the men not convicted, but against whom the evidence proved rather astounding, was a local preacher named Edgar Ray Killen (in yellow, below), on whom the filmmakers then concentrate during the build-up to and commencement of the 2005 trial.

All this was news of a sort a few years back, and some will remember it and its outcome, but what Dickoff and Pagano have done is explore inside and out of Neshoba county and its locals, as well as the families of the victims, and the wife and friends of the accused (and the accused himself: quite an aging and unrepentant example of what I guess we would call the old South).  All this fascinates and disturbs.

The South has changed, it becomes clear from meeting some of the current citizens of Neshoba -- whites and blacks -- who have joined together to push for the reopening of the case. But much of the old South remains, as we see, spending time with others -- most disappointingly, some younger people -- whose attitudes range from "Leave well enough alone" to "Let sleeping dogs lie."  Judging blacks as inferior, worth neither life nor time, would seem to be shockingly prevalent still. Not that it isn't in the North, of course, where convention and etiquette still maintain some hold on the open mouth.  Oh, and we don't fly the Confederate flag.

Dickoff and Pagano have given us plenty to chew on, some of which amounts to a kind of achievement worth touting, even if southern justice seems to remain to this day partially blind and deaf.  "Let the punishment fit the crime" may double as a Gilbert & Sullivan Mikado lyric and the platform for retributive justice, but by the end of this documentary, which begins with the crime and closes with the would-be punishment, it is clear that our nation has barely begun to come to terms with its own history.

Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, from First Run Features, opens theatrically this Friday, August 13, at the Cinema Village in New York City. Click the link for all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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