NESHOBA: The Price of Freedom
NESHOBA: The Price of Freedom” tells the story of a Mississippi town still divided about the meaning of justice, 40 years after the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. In the summer of 1964, these three young men, two whites from New York and a black from Mississippi — went to Philadelphia, a small town in the heart of Neshoba County, to register black voters and investigate a church burning. When their bodies were found 44 days later buried beneath an earthen dam, many people rationalized the men came looking for trouble and got what they deserved. For more than forty years, Mississippi refused to prosecute any of the Klansmen directly responsible for the murders, even though they bragged openly about what they did. While the killers continued to live and prosper, most townspeople remained silent, as if the murders never happened.
In 2004, a multi-racial coalition of Neshoba County citizens got together for the first time in 40 years to erase the stain from their town by publicly pressuring the State to bring murder charges against the ”Mississippi Burning” murderers. Meeting with opposition and even hostility from some of their neighbors, members of the Philadelphia Coalition were resolute in their call for justice, healing and racial reconciliation. Finally, on January 6, 2005, the State of Mississippi indicted the mastermind of the killings, Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old Baptist preacher and notorious racist.
The filmmakers gained unprecedented access to Killen, following him for five months, from shortly after his indictment through his trial. For the first time ever, the film captures the outspoken views of a Klan member charged with a civil rights murder and takes viewers on a journey into the mindset of a man who, to this day, feels the murders of two Jews and an African-American were justified as “self-defense” of a way of life. Through exclusive, first-time interviews with Killen, intimate interviews with the families of the victims, and candid interviews with black and white Neshoba County citizens with diverse points of view, the film exposes the social and political forces that perpetuated state-sanctioned terrorism and created an atmosphere of hate and fear, allowing murderers to walk free.
NESHOBA takes an unflinching look at ordinary citizens struggling to find peace with their town’s violent, racist past. By interweaving new and archival footage, the 87-minute documentary paints a picture of Neshoba County from 1964 to 2005, using the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner case as a barometer of what has changed for both blacks and whites since the murders. The film examines the complicity of local, state and federal government who deliberately fanned the flames of hate and violence. It questions why the State took four decades to seek justice, and why only one person was singled out when at least eight others who participated in the murders are still alive. Finally, the film explores whether the prosecution of one unrepentant Klansman constitutes justice and whether healing and reconciliation are possible without telling the unvarnished truth.
History of the Project
I was 17 years old in 1964, a few years younger than James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Like them, I wanted to be a part of Freedom Summer and help register black people to vote. My father was adamant; he wouldn’t let me go. He grew up in the Mississippi Delta, the only Jewish family in his town. He knew discrimination and fear. When those three kids went missing and their bodies discovered two months later, I was devastated. How could murderers brag about killing three innocent, unarmed young men and never be held accountable? This American tragedy helped shape my politics and my art. When Ben Chaney called me 35 years later to discuss making a film about justice in this case, I jumped at the chance. Ben was on a lifelong mission and I wanted to help. His energy and commitment were palpable.
A few months later, I met the indomitable Carolyn Goodman and my life was never the same again. She was amazing, still protesting injustice wherever she saw it, never losing hope her son’s case would be prosecuted, still making a difference. For me, she was not only an inspiration, but also a hero. Although the film stayed on the back burner for five more years, my relationship with Carolyn grew closer. I had no idea what started for me in 1964 would culminate in a film 45 years later.
As the 40th anniversary of the murders approached and the spotlight was again on the case, I knew I had to make the film. By 2004, Carolyn Goodman was 88, Fannie Lee Chaney was in poor health, and only eight of the murderers were still alive. When I learned about the Philadelphia Coalition, a group of black and white Mississippi citizens calling for justice for the first time in 40 years, I was moved by their passion to finally tell the truth.
With only three months before the 40th Anniversary events, and little time to raise money or apply for grants, I pitched the idea to my lifelong friend and award-winning director of photography, Tony Pagano, and suggested we make the film together. I asked him not to make a decision until he met Carolyn Goodman. A month later Tony was on board! He and I have known each other for 35 years, as a student in the first college class I ever taught, as a cherished friend, as DP on several of my films, and finally, as my partner on NESHOBA: The Price of Freedom.
When Tony and I started shooting in 2004, we had no idea Killen would get indicted 10 months later; that we would have unprecedented access to him for five months; that we would travel to Mississippi more than 20 times; that the film would take five years to finish; that Carolyn Goodman and Fannie Lee Chaney would testify at Killen’s trial; and, that a black man would be running for President when NESHOBA made its world premiere at the Boston Film Festival.
45 years ago James, Andy and Mickey, and hundreds of others, died so Barack Obama could be elected President. Their legacy is our heritage. We must never forget them or the “price of freedom.” We hope our film reminds us how far we’ve come in race relations and how far we still need to go.
NESHOBA: The Price of Freedom was funded in part through grants from the Andrew Goodman Foundation. The film could not have made without their unwavering generosity and belief in us.