"Neshoba: The Price of Freedom," a documentary by Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano, focuses on one of the most notorious and terrible incidents of the 1960s and on its long aftermath.
In August their bodies were found in a mud dam on the property of Olen Burrage. Goodman and Schwerner, white New Yorkers in their early 20s who had come South as part of a wave of young activists, had been shot. So had Chaney, a 20-year-old black Mississippian, whose body also showed signs of having been beaten, tortured and mutilated.
The case was a big story in the national news and also attracted the attention of the F.B.I. and the Justice Department, which won a handful of convictions, and light sentences, on federal civil rights charges a few years later. But no state charges, for murder or anything else, were brought until 2005, when the Mississippi attorney general obtained an indictment against Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old preacher and sawmill operator long believed to have been one of the main organizers of the killings.
Ms. Dickoff and Mr. Pagano take the viewer back, briefly, to 1964, interspersing old news clips with painful recollections: those of Chaney's mother, Fannie Lee, and his younger brother Ben; those of Andrew Goodman's mother, Carolyn; and those of Rita Bender, who was married to Michael Schwerner and who was in Mississippi with him in his last months. But the emphasis of "Neshoba" falls, properly and disturbingly, on the present.
Its narrative is organized around Mr. Killen's trial. As this event approaches and unfolds, we hear from black and white members of the Philadelphia Coalition, a kind of unofficial truth commission devoted partly to bringing about reconciliation on a personal level, partly to exercising moral pressure on state officials.
We also hear from other residents of Neshoba County, many of whom are adamant that the past should be left alone. Their wish to "let sleeping dogs lie" collides with the families' longstanding desire to see justice done.
But the dramatic heart of the film consists of scenes that, in plain moviegoing terms, transform "Neshoba" from an earnest courtroom chronicle into something much more fascinating and troubling. These are interviews with Mr. Killen himself. A member of the Philadelphia Coalition observes that a lot of white Southerners who hold racist views tend, nowadays, to express them "in code." Mr. Killen is not one of them. His passionate defense of segregation is startling now, though it would have been unremarkable in 1964.
"I'm not a Jew hater," he says at one point, after having explained how Jews and Communists control the media, and he is unguarded and outspoken in defending his loathing for the "outsiders" and local troublemakers who threatened his Christian, racially pure way of life 40 years ago.
Mr. Killen is a contradictory figure. A hard worker and, by the testimony of his wife, a devoted husband, he can be witty and gracious. But the camera stays with him long enough to catch glimpses of the darker aspects of his personality, in particular the cold, contemptuous, dehumanizing way he speaks of his adversaries. He proclaims his innocence and yet, at the same time, often seems tempted to boast about the crimes — principled acts of civic duty, in his mind — that he says he had no part in.
His defenders, including some former members of the Ku Klux Klan, argue that the prosecutors made Mr. Killen a scapegoat. Ben Chaney and others wonder why he was the only suspect indicted for a murder that is known to have involved at least a dozen local citizens, quite a few of whom are still alive.
It is by now a matter of historical record that in a great many Southern jurisdictions, from Albany, Ga., to Lowndes County, Ala., and throughout Mississippi, law enforcement officials and politicians, citizens' councils and the Klan worked together to terrorize and intimidate blacks and to enforce a self-protective code of silence on potentially dissenting whites.
All of this history is richly present in "Neshoba," but it is not only of historical interest. It was a Mississippi writer, after all, who observed that "the past isn't dead. It isn't even past." This film is a document of hope, progress and idealism but also a reminder that the deep springs of bigotry and violence that fed a long, vicious campaign of domestic terrorism have not dried up.
New York Times