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'Neshoba' shows worst and best of a citizenry

The documentary on the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964 provides not just a chilling glimpse of the time's virulent racism but also the impressive strides that have been made.

September 10, 2010|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

"Neshoba" is a troubling documentary, a film about fiery passions and murderous deeds that is disturbing in ways that go beyond what might be expected.

Neshoba is a county in Mississippi where, on a June night in 1964, one of the events that defined the struggle for racial equality in the South took place. A trio of civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, their bodies found days later, buried in an earthen dam and exhibiting signs of torture and premature burial.

Initially, part of the reason significant national media attention focused on these murders is because two of the victims, Goodman and Schwerner, were white males from the North. As widow Rita Schwerner says, some mothers' sons mattered more than others.

But gradually this case, which was baldly overdramatized in the Oscar-winning "Mississippi Burning," became notorious for another reason. For 40 years the state of Mississippi refused to bring murder charges against the men investigations had shown were involved in the deaths.

Because of the state's refusal, the federal government was reduced to indicting 18 men on the charge of violating the victims' civil rights. Seven were found guilty in 1967, serving between two and six years in prison.

The first part of "Neshoba" takes us back to those tumultuous times, partly through newsreels and partly through contemporary interviews with relatives of the murdered men, including Goodman's indomitable 88-year-old mother Carolyn.

This initial section forcefully reminds us of two things that are easily forgotten, starting with the heartbreaking idealism of the youthful civil rights workers (something also on display in Stanley Nelson's exceptional "Freedom Riders"). Since the '60s are often derided as an era of personal excess, it's important to remember the other side.

The other point made by newsreel footage is how savage and virulent the hatred of African Americans was at the time. Truly the inflated rhetoric of today's haters has nothing on the venom that went out on the airwaves in that tumultuous era.

But the reason "Neshoba" exists is not only to rehash history but also to focus on some remarkable modern developments, starting with the work of the Philadelphia Coalition, named after the city that is Neshoba's county seat.

Made up of involved citizens of both races and including people with personal ties to the 1960s events, the Coalition was determined to seek closure for those terrifying days by righting old wrongs and seeking murder indictments. Their passion for justice, their desire to end the generations of guilt so impressed Jim Hood, the state's attorney general, that he convened a grand jury to look into the case.

Ben Chaney, James Chaney's younger brother, asked filmmakers Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano to get involved in documenting this story, and they did more than that. Taking more than 20 trips to Mississippi, they did an unusually thorough job of interviewing, talking not only to relatives but townspeople of all political persuasions.

The result is a rich and detailed picture of the particular culture of this particular part of the South, where for every person who wanted truth and reconciliation, someone else would insist Northern troublemakers got what they were looking for and advise that it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.

The key person the filmmakers talked to in Mississippi was 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, generally considered to be the mastermind of the murder plot. The filmmakers had extensive interviews with Killen over a five-month period, providing an unusual window into the thought processes of an old-school unreconstructed racist.

Though eight of the 18 people brought to trial by the FBI are still alive, Killen turned out to be the only man indicted by the state of Mississippi. While that heartened some friends and family of the victims, it left others dissatisfied. Viewing Killen as a sacrificial lamb, they said it was a mockery of justice to leave the other guilty parties unindicted.

"Neshoba's" strength is its clear-eyed picture of a situation that is far from simple and still not completely resolved. Also, like "The Tillman Story," it displays the worst and best of America, the racism that will not die and the passionately concerned citizens who come together and effect significant change.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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