Film Review: Neshoba: The Price of Freedom

Excellent documentary corrective to <i>Mississippi Burning</i>-type melodramas.

Neshoba: The Price of Freedom thoroughly covers the case of three Civil Rights workers who were brutally murdered by KKK members in 1964 Philadelphia, Mississippi, part of Neshoba County. Filmmakers Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano balance valuable reportage and engrossing storytelling.

Normally, a film like Neshoba would find its audience through cable or public television, but this work is so well-done that it might just have an impact theatrically, as it should.

Interestingly, Dickoff and Pagano do not focus entirely on the tragedy of 1964; once the characters and facts are established, the film shifts to the legal actions of just a few years ago, indicating the immediacy and relevancy of certain long-ago events.

Initially, we learn that Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (both white Northeasterners) and James Chaney (a black Philadelphian) were killed by a mob of more than 20 Klan members, yet only a handful of men were ever prosecuted (three years later, in 1967) and then they only served a minimal amount of time in prison. The mastermind of the murders, Edgar Ray Killen, was never charged.

In 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the murders, a “Philadelphia Coalition” of concerned citizens and family and friends of the deceased forced the state’s attorney general to reopen the case. “Pastor” Killen, elderly but still unrepentant, finally went on trial. Though many others were not (and may never be) prosecuted, Killen’s trial brought renewed attention to the case and a sense of closure for the victims’ families.

Despite the use of traditional techniques (talking-head interviews, archival footage, re-enactments, etc.), Neshoba is gripping and eye-opening. Dickoff and Pagano get amazing access to the individuals on both sides of the court case, including the family members of both the victims and the accused, witnesses, lawyers, townspeople, and, most dramatically, Killen himself. The mothers, Fannie Lee Chaney and Carolyn Goodman, both of whom testified at the trial, are extremely touching and dignified, while Killen is downright chilling with his braggadocio.

Killen is such an unabashed bigot, in fact, that he makes an ideal movie villain. Unfortunately, as the film reminds us, he is merely a scapegoat for the others who killed or helped kill the three men—and, clearly, virulent racism still exists in the county (as it does everywhere). Even with a relatively upbeat ending, the sadness and sense of loss pierce through. (We learn in the postscript that Fannie Lee Chaney and Carolyn Goodman didn’t live long enough to see this film.) The 1988 Hollywood feature, Mississippi Burning, by contrast, seems more simplistic—creating its own, unintended tinge of racism by giving little voice to either the black characters or the white activists and focusing mainly on the supposedly “heroic” FBI investigators.

Given how President Barack Obama, the first African-American U.S. President, has been demonized and threatened by the right wing with some of the same names used against the civil-rights workers of the 1960s, Neshoba: The Price of Freedom is not only timely but urgent.