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Mississippi Is Indelibly Burned Into Their Minds

October 02, 1994|Elaine Dutka

Critics have labeled "Freedom on My Mind," winner of the Grand Jury Award for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, an antidote to Alan Parker's "Mississippi Burning"--that aesthetically gripping but factually dubious civil rights drama released by Orion Pictures six years ago.

Rather than portraying the FBI as heroes, this movie--which plays at the Nuart in West Los Angeles through Wednesday--points the camera at the ordinary citizens who participated in the Mississippi Voter Registration Project that triggered thousands of arrests and numerous murders between 1961 and 1964.

" 'Mississippi Burning' adopted a very Hollywood approach to the tale," says Marilyn Mulford, a producer-director of "Freedom," which was screened last week at an event sponsored by the Hollywood Policy Center and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "It was essentially a cop story, a search for bodies, which overlooked the real heroes who put their lives on the line.

"The FBI was made up mostly of local racist Mississippians who didn't consider it their job to protect the activists. Witnesses hesitated to come forward for fear the FBI would leak their names. The movement didn't trust them at all."

Connie Field, best known for 1981's "The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter," is the docu mentary's other producer-director. Like Mulford, she's a Berkeley resident who got her cinematic training at the radical Newsreel Films in the late 1960s.

Lining up development money from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Field embarked on the $850,000 documentary in 1989. Taping the Freedom Summer's 25th reunion provided valuable footage, as did the TV networks, which provided archival material.

Over a four-year period, Field and Mulford interviewed dozens of activists--black sharecroppers and organizers, as well as white college students bused south to capture the nation's attention. The low-profile Bob Moses, "the Gandhi of the Mississippi movement," agreed to participate. USC professor-playwright Endesha Ida Mae Holland, a former prostitute whose activism led hard-line segregationists to kill her mother, also made the final cut.

The Los Angeles earthquake and a New York City ice storm delayed the printing of the optical track and forced cancellation of the first Sundance screening in Park City, Utah, last January. Since then, however, there's been hardly a hitch: Film festivals came calling; critics raved; a CD-ROM is a possibility down the road.

That Mississippi summer, Field is convinced, was a watershed in American history. The grass-roots organization succeeded in registering more than 80,000 members of the multiracial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and though President Johnson refused to seat the group at the Atlantic City Democratic convention, its efforts paved the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

"Young people have come up to me saying that this was the first time they saw the races working together," Field says. "Life today is very ethnically divided. Betrayed by the federal government, the smartest people of our generation moved outside the system."*

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