- Neshoba: The Price of Freedom
Neshoba: The Price of Freedom (2010) is a documentary that combines footage from the summer of 1964 when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Shwerner were murdered in Neshoba county Mississippi with contemporary interviews from the victims’ families and community residents about the crime. Balancing the two, co-directors Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano present a well-informed and deftly unbiased document of American race relations in Neshoba Mississippi that spans the course of 40 years. At stake for much of the film is the impending trial of alleged Ku Klux Klan member and Baptist preacher, Edgar Ray Killen, ultimately convicted of manslaughter after decades of legal battles and delays.
The story Neshoba: The Price of Freedom tells is familiar to anyone who has encountered Alan Parker’s 1988 film, Mississippi Burning, which fictionalizes the same crime. Yet, what Neshoba: The Price of Freedom offers us in the place of fiction are the faces and personalities of the people whose lives remain the most affected by Chaney’s, Goodman’s, and Shwerner’s murders. The documentary opens with the state of racial segregation in the United States circa 1964, showing a televised report from President John F. Kennedy about the importance of equal rights’ voting, footage of civil rights workers registering Black citizens to vote, and Ross Barnett declaring himself a fierce [End Page 113] advocate for segregation as the governor of Mississippi. Shifting to footage of a Neshoba County woman stating, “God forgives murder and he forgives adultery, but he is very angry and he does curse those folks who do integrate,” and footage from a Ku Klux Klan rally, Dickoff and Pagano set the scene for 1964. As the opening credits appear over more footage from the 1960s, we see an copy of the original missing person’s poster for Chaney, Goodman, and Shwerner just before a still image of a map of Neshoba County takes over the screen. The screen fades into a partial reenactment of June 21, 1964 and with the sound of three gunshots followed by the photographs of Goodman, Shwerner, and then Chaney we are caught in a contemporary restaging and documentary footage collage as text appears onscreen that reads “On June 21, 1964 a mob of Klansmen murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Shwerner. For 40 years Mississippi failed to a bring murder charge against any of the killers.”
Dickoff’s and Pagano’s opening sequence introduces the audience to a position of juggling the past and present tense. While Neshoba: The Price of Freedom reads like a straightforward historical documentary, it very much means to contribute to the present conversation about race in the United States. Just as we become familiarized with black and white footage, the scenery shifts to a colorful landscape and contemporary voiceovers that range from disenchanted hope, “Neshoba county will do any damn thing to cover this up, they don’t intend to go to trial;” to hopeful, “Some people don’t understand that the burden is better lifted by the trial than by just ignoring it;” to disgruntled, “I think it’s disgraceful, I think it’s something that should’ve been left alone,” and “These people that’re saying that, they know that if that if you keep bringing it up, somebody in their family’s name is gonna come up.” It seems that, while 40 years has passed since the murders of three men, not many feelings have changed about the value of human life in Neshoba Mississippi. The language of blatant racism has shifted to a just-barely distinguishable menace about family relations. Not many people have relocated, thus the county itself has aged and shifted in relation to the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Shwerner. The community remains divisive about issues of race, and still boasts sections of town that have no Black landowners as well as retains a firm KKK identity presence. Registering the conviction of contemporary segregationists, and capturing these forms of testimony without bias is a challenge...