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Another Case of Murder in Mississippi : TV movie on the killing of three civil rights workers in 1964 tries to fill in what 'Mississippi Burning' left out

February 04, 1990|IRV LETOFSKY

Goodman said that "Mississippi Burning" did serve to arouse interest, "especially among young people," who hadn't known anything about that time in the South.

"At the same time," Chaney put in, "the image that younger people got (from the film) about the times, about Mississippi itself and about the people who participated in the movement being passive, was pretty negative and it didn't reflect the truth."

The survivors both acknowledged inaccuracies in the new TV representation. Chaney, who used to "hang out" with his older brother because their mother always pressed James into baby-sitting, is shown in playing with his Slinky on the stairs at the civil rights office in Meridian.

"I don't know if we had Slinkys in Mississippi at that time," Ben Chaney said. "I know we used to play out in front of the office with marbles and throw rocks at girls," he noted, adding a smile at the recollection.

Goodman had minor quibbles "but I'm not sure they will interact on the impact of the film."

The image of son Andrew, for example. He trained with the workers at the orientation sessions at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, prior to "invading" Mississippi. He had even played a racist heckler during the fierce indoctrination sessions. Then he was among the vanguard heading into Mississippi but was there only one day before the deadly trip into the wilds of Neshoba County.

In the film, Andrew Goodman is depicted as a boy who just stumbles into trouble. But his mother insisted, "Andy knew what it was all about. (It came) from his family life. We were always involved in all kinds of demonstrations, pro-labor, anti-fascist. That's the story of our lives. Andy was not an innocent."

But, again, that misportrayal doesn't affect the essence of the film, the mother said.

She noted that many of the so-called Northern agitators were "more than students," that many were "people from the religious community, they were lawyers, they were doctors, a whole cross section of people who came from far from Mississippi. They came from lives of relative security. They knew they weren't going down there for a holiday."

Chaney would have preferred more emphasis on members of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church--the one that was burned by the Klan in the incident that brought the three young men into the night--"and their attitudes and how come this church out of all the churches in Neshoba County was the one that stood up first. What made those people do that?"

Chaney referred to some dialogue in the film that some black leaders were not willing to accept leadership of white people. "(They felt that) this was their movement and they didn't believe white people could stand up under the line of fire anyway. And when people like Michael Schwerner came down and stood up on the line of fire, he got the respect of the people of Mississippi--blacks, young and old--and from then on they were able to work together."

Goodman added that there were very few defections after the murders: "That's something that has to be known too."

Tova Laiter, now president of Freddie Fields Productions, first heard the name James Chaney in 1984 from writer Ben Stein. Eddie Murphy's "people" (management) told her that they were looking for movie ideas, and she in turn was discussing possibilities with Stein.

"A friend who had been a state trooper in Arkansas," recalled Stein, "told me a story about how he had known state troopers in Mississippi who had known Chaney and said what was unknown about him was that he was funny, a mimic, a comical guy. He could do imitations like Eddie Murphy."

"Why," asked Laiter, "had I never heard of this James Chaney? I thought, 'How come I don't know about this great story?' "

Laiter hadn't known that much American history. She was raised in Israel, studied art and philosophy at Hebrew University and served as a sergeant in Army communications in the War Room in Jerusalem during the Six Day War. She remembered with some pride, "I gave the historic announcement that 'We have the Wailing Wall in our hands!' "

"As it turned out, Murphy didn't like it," she said. "His career was just getting rolling and he didn't know if audiences would accept him dying."

But she was intrigued about the Mississippi summer and started making the rounds, talking to perhaps 20 people: "Everybody was patronizing. They said, 'Tova, you know better than that.' It's true, if you take on a black subject matter, you're going on a suicidal mission."

In 1987, she had a "pitch" meeting with Mark Canton, then Warner Bros. president of worldwide motion picture production (now executive vice president of the corporate Warners): "She presented the story with such passion and it got to me so quickly," recalled Canton, who had studied contemporary American history at UCLA. "It touched a nerve in me. I thought it was incredibly relevant and, from the dramatic viewpoint, this story was very emotional and very accessible."

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