Revisiting Civil Rights History With Neshoba

Revisiting Civil Rights History With Neshoba

Articles - Cinematography

Forty six years ago, Micki Dickoff desperately wanted to take part in “Freedom Summer,” a campaign organized by civil rights groups in Mississippi to register African Americans to vote. But her father wouldn’t allow her to attend. What happened at Freedom Summer shocked Dickoff and Americans across the country to the core. Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by a mob of Klansmen in the small town of Neshoba. Dickoff’s attachment to the movement and the events that followed were so close to home, they remained in the back of her mind.

As the 35th anniversary of the murders approached in 2004, Dickoff knew the time was right and felt compelled to tell the story of justice for those three American heroes. Sure enough, 10 months after Dickoff and co-director Tony Pagano began shooting, the state indicted 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, the brains behind the fatal attack.

Dickoff and Pagano (in his debut feature film) spent the next five years interviewing Killen and traveling back and forth from Mississippi. The culmination of their hard work is Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, which opens on August 13th, 2010. MM caught up with Dickoff to learn more about the project.

Kate Ritter (MM): What drew you to this story?

Micki Dickoff (MD): I was 17 in 1964 and wanted to go to Freedom Summer to register black voters. My father, who grew up in the Mississippi Delta in the only Jewish family in town, would not let me go. When James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were murdered, it haunted me my whole life and influenced my politics and art. When I received a phone call from Ben Chaney in 1999, asking me to make a film about the Mississippi Burning murders, I jumped at the chance.

I began the project at the 35th anniversary of the murders when most of the perpetrators were still alive. I was approaching the story through Ben’s eyes. He was going down to Mississippi to confront his brother’s murderers and shame the state of Mississippi to seek murder charges against the men. The project came to a halt when Ben’s mother grew concerned about her only son’s safety. The film then sat on the back burner for the next five years. I grew very close to Ben and Carolyn Goodman, and with the 40th anniversary approaching, and Carolyn in her late 80s, I knew the film had to be made, now or never. When I learned about the Philadelphia Coalition, blacks and whites for the first time in 40 years coming together to demand justice in the murders, I knew I wanted to follow this group.

I pitched the film idea to my lifelong friend, Tony Pagano, an award-winning director of photography, to partner with me. After more than 20 trips to Mississippi and six years in the making, the film began the film festival circuit as we continued to raise money to purchase the archival footage and music rights and do the fine cut edit.

I wanted to be there when my friends Fannie Lee Chaney and Carolyn Goodman finally got a small measure of justice and recognition that their son’s lives meant something.

MM: How were you able to gain such unprecedented access to Edgar Ray Killen?

MD: Moviemakers, news reporters and journalists have been trying to interview Killen since 1964 without much success. (Killen tells a story about how Connie Chung used to camp outside his house trying to get an interview, but never did).

Tony and I were in the right place at the right time. We were in Neshoba County, Mississippi, making a film about long-delayed justice in the “Mississippi Burning” case when Killen was indicted 10 months after we started shooting. The indictment opened a small window of opportunity, and Killen granted us one interview which turned into five months of interviews. We told Killen we wanted to tell his story, his truth, in his words and we meant it. His huge ego and his belief system did all the rest.

It was important to get inside Killen’s head to understand how these murders could have happened and gone unpunished for 40 years. The hardest part for me during all those months was not debating Killen on some of the things he said. It was his truth we were trying to get at, not ours. I’m not sure I could have controlled myself 20 years ago.

MM: How was the co-director experience? Were you able to share responsibilities equally? How about the creative decisions?

MD: We both had our strengths and tried to complement each other. I wrote the film, Tony shot the film and we shared all other responsibilities from directing to producing to editing. I relied on Tony’s eye and technical expertise from his many years as an award-winning director of photography and I trusted his means of dealing with people in both a respectful and persuasive manner. Along the way, we had some varying opinions about creative decisions and we worked it out. We compromised; I believe that made the film stronger.

MM: The film took five years to complete. Did you run into any setbacks during your moviemaking process, considering the events took place more than 40 years ago?

MD: Yes, we ran into setbacks over money. We had to rely so heavily on archival footage and tried our best to find footage that had not been overused, including personal footage of the families to emphasize the passage of time. We also were not sure how much of the murders’ details to include because our vision was to make a film about Neshoba County and race today. But, as we talked about the project, we realized that so many people did not remember these three young men, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, and knew nothing about their murders.

The cost of this archival footage and music raised tremendous money issues. We finished a rough cut in the fall of 2008, but could only pay for film festival rights. With Barack Obama running for President, we wanted to get the film out there and decided to premiere it at the Boston Film Festival to gain attention and try to raise the $150,000 we needed to buy the rights, do the fine cut and get the film released. Unbelievably, that process took us almost two years. In the end, we could not have done this without the unwavering support of Carolyn Goodman, David Goodman and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, our fiscal sponsor, and Dick Molpus, a Mississippi native who wanted this film to be seen.

First Run Features was on board in early 2009, waiting only for the film to be finished, with the rights in place and the fine cut completed. We are so thrilled to have found a home with such a respected distributor; a company that is passionate about Neshoba and has such an incredible library of socially relevant films.

MM: The film is garnering great reviews and awards from publications and festivals alike. Why do you think audiences are identifying with Neshoba?

MD: The passion of the audiences on the film festival circuit and the powerful discussions prompted by the film inspired me to keep going. As a moviemaker, it was very frustrating to still be seeking finishing funds after winning awards and screening the film in 30 film festivals.

I think people in America want to talk about race, reconciliation and healing, but it is often a taboo subject. Neshoba confronts the issues of past racism, one of the ugliest racial incidents in our history, and in doing so creates a space to talk honestly and openly about racism today, about what’s changed and what hasn’t in the past 46 years. We’re still seeing some pretty ugly racial incidents today, like the one embroiling Shirley Sherrod and the rhetoric from the Tea Party movement. I believe audiences see ordinary citizens, blacks and whites, coming together to tell the truth, seek justice and make change in their community and that gives them a powerful message: They can be part of that change, too.

I also think audiences identify with the families and their long search for justice. As reporter Jerry Mitchell says in the film, “justice brings joy.”

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