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"My opinion is, if you stir it up, somethin' bad could happen again."—unnamed Neshoba County resident
On June 21, 1964, three young men disappeared in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white, came from New York to Neshoba County to help people like James Earl Chaney, a black Neshoba local, register people to vote. These efforts, during the time that became known as Freedom Summer, angered local whites, so the Ku Klux Klan sprang into action. They rounded up the three me, shot Goodman and Schwerner, then tortured and beat Chaney to death before burying all three in a pit. While the Klansmen bragged about their crime, nobody ever paid for it.
Neshoba: The Price of Freedom deftly relays the story of the men's tragic fate using archival footage and interviews with Neshoba County residents, but directors Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano have a story other than pure history to tell. In the new century, a multi-racial group of locals wanted to finally address the elephant in the room: the utter lack of responsibility that Philadelphia, as a society, has taken for these brutal murders. They wanted to change the conversation, or at least have one, and they had an idea how. Over a dozen of the people associated with the killings were still alive in 2005 and, with the help of a Mississippi attorney, one of them was brought to justice.
Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist preacher for half a century and an unabashed racist, was widely believed to have orchestrated the murders and, after four decades, was finally indicted for his role in the crimes; while apparently not on the scene, he was one of the principle organizers. No matter the years that have passed, he has no regrets about what happened, but neither will he admit any culpability. Of course, that wouldn't be in his best interest, but given how much access to his life and thoughts he gives the directors, he might as well just own up. Killen's a pistol, a bigot of the first degree, and a charismatic storyteller. By accounts from his friends and family, he is a good man, but clearly this supposed kindness is reserved for the white counter only.
Killen's the star, but the families of the victims also take the stage, telling their personal stories of the tragedy as they arrive into Neshoba County to witness the trial. They are nondescript people, but still display a profound sadness about what happened to their sons and brothers. The people of Philadelphia also get their due, and they run the gambit from modern progressive proponents of the trial to hardcore racists to middling people who just want to let sleeping dogs lie, though that sentiment is coded racism in itself. The film tells us that, while enough people have changed to allow some modicum of justice, views ingrained for generations are hard to shake, especially in people completely unwilling to set their prejudices aside.
Dickoff and Pagano do an admirable job at telling their story, but they go a little bit heavy on how much this trial affected the region. Sure, many were relieved and thankful that somebody saw punishment from a decades-old crime, but many more involved in this heinous act walk the streets today, though fewer and fewer still survive. Nobody else will see punishment and, no matter how much Killen was a scapegoat for everybody else, the issue has been basically laid to rest. Those that didn't want the trial in the first place remain outraged, while racially motivated violence still occurs. All that said, the images of blacks and whites holding hands and walking through a park, nice as it may seem, is wishful thinking at its most pure. There is a compelling story here, and it's often told well, but this kind of attitude brings the film down a few notches.
Neshoba: The Price of Freedom comes from First Run in a fairly bare bones DVD. The full frame image transfer is basic and fine, as is the stereo sound. Nothing special, but in no way is it bad. As an extra, we get some additional courtroom testimony, all readings from the original failed trial, which makes for some of the most interesting moments on the disc.
It's not a great DVD, but Neshoba: The Price of Freedom is a fine documentary. It's a little heavy-handed in its approach, but it's most certainly worth watching.
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