In 1964 when she was only 17, Micki Dickoff asked her father if she could go to Mississippi to work with the volunteers of Freedom Summer, registering black voters. Her father, a Mississippi native, refused to allow her to go. His was the only Jewish family in a small Mississippi town, and he feared what she would find there. Not long after, his worst fears were confirmed when three of the volunteers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by local Klansmen, all of them deputy sheriffs of Neshoba County.
Over four decades later, Micki Dickoff paid a sort of debt to the three murdered men by making a documentary, “Neshoba: The Price of Freedom,” that recounts the story of their deaths and the long, torturous path to some kind of justice, culminating in the 2005 trial of Edgar Ray Killen for instigating the murders. The film, which she co-directed with Tony Pagano, is a somewhat conventional film, but seldom less than gripping and thanks to remarkable access Killen granted to the filmmakers, a cautionary tale about apostles of “states’ rights” as a perverted form of liberty. It premieres August 13.
Killen, an 85-year-old Baptist preacher and sawmill operator, is remarkably forthright in his opinions, which have not changed in the nearly 50 years since the killings. Currently serving three 20 year terms in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for manslaughter after being convicted on the 41st anniversary of the crimes, Killen gleefully characterizes the victims as “Christ-killing Jews and Communists,” phrases that pop up repeatedly in one form or another throughout his considerable screen time. He loves the sound of his own voice and his candor reminds one of a line from Clifford Odets: “This man buries himself with his mouth.”
Killen makes a vivid contrast to Deborah Posey, also a native of Neshoba County, a round-faced red-haired woman who became active in the Philadelphia Coalition (named after the county’s principal city and locale of the crimes). Posey, who is memorably seen breaking down in tears at the place where the killers buried the three civil rights workers, says of her burgeoning friendship with one of Chaney’s relatives, “I needed to tell her I was sorry for what my town did.”
But the real driving forces of the film’s narrative are the survivors, the Chaneys, Goodmans and Schwerners who, after all those years and frustrations, seem to still believe in a system that has failed them for so long. Compared to the affable nonsense and unregenerate bigotry of Killen, the gravitas with which Fannie Lee Chaney and Carolyn Goodman, the two surviving mothers, carry themselves is deeply refreshing and moving.
There is one thorny issue that runs throughout the film and can’t be resolved. Was Edgar Ray Killen a scapegoat for those who were never prosecuted? Even Ben Chaney, James’s younger brother, who characterizes Killen as “the most well-known unrepentant racist in the state of Mississippi,” seems to think so. In 1967, 21 men were indicted on federal civil rights statutes for their part in the murders; only a handful were convicted. Eight of those who were acquitted are still alive. Is Killen merely a stand-in for them? And what about the several dozen murdered activists whose cases have never been brought to trial and whose names scroll across the screen at the end of the film?
Unfortunately, at the film’s conclusion, Dickoff and Pagano seem unwilling to trust their own work and they feel it necessary to end with several minutes of cheerleading through a string of quotes from people involved in the trial. Up to this point, they have eschewed obvious audience manipulation, to the film’s credit; the finale is utterly unnecessary, an egregious slip that mars an otherwise admirable piece of work. It would have been better to have ended with the verdict and its aftermath, followed by that list of “unsolved” murders and let the audience draw its own conclusions.
“Neshoba: The Price of Freedom” opens on Friday, August 13 at the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.). For information, phone (212) 924-3363 or go to www.cinemavillage.com.