When three Civil Rights workers were savagely killed for registering blacks to vote in Mississippi, 1964, justice wasn't served. Four decades later, the sutures rip off and this community's open wound is exposed anew. Those familiar with the tragedy either deny its existence or want the proof of revenge to flow in the streets. Ringleader Edgar Allen Killen is facing murder charges in a guaranteed soap opera of a trial. Neshoba filmmakers got inside the foreboding domiciles to chat up good ‘ol boys and gals all-grown-up, and let the victims' family speak out to Killen himself. A misguided edit shortchanges audiences of what could have been a doc that capitalized on its exclusive sit-downs and reportage.
The slap-on-the-wrist convictions of less than half of the 18 conspirators were brought up on federal indictments in a kangaroo court, replete with an all-white jury. The trial's purpose was to right the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, but none of the culpable did more than six-months in the clink. Reputed KKK member and instigator Edgar Allen Killen (aka Preacher Killen) is facing murder charges in 2004 for his hand in the grisly killings. And everybody's a critic, Killen worst of all.
But it takes almost and hour to realize the accused is talking. The film opens with President John F. Kennedy decrying racism as peaceful black marchers get their American flag yanked from their mitts by rifle-clutching National Guardsmen. Cut to a reenactment of that fateful night on June 21, 1964. A station wagon followed by a police officer ends with a close shot of a hand oozing blood. The film makes good with stock footage of the boys' training regimen in Ohio just before they went off to the kindling South. These clips are paired with family members pouring their hearts out after losing their loved ones. James Chaney's mother cries tears like it was 1964 all over again.
Farmer Preacher Killen plays a swaggering antagonist. The bigoted elder brags he's the only miller in the South to never whip his "black hands." He contradicts himself by snarling, "But sometimes they made you do it." He goes on to say that some were thieves. The Baptist has made his peace with the big man upstairs when it comes to whatever spurious claims of wrongdoing he's been accused of in this lifetime. "Until God finds me guilty I will continue to be at peace with it. I'm almost positive that he will never make me feel guilty for something that he knows what I had to do." All the while the film swings the pendulum back to the victimized families, some who want the wheelchair-bound octogenarian to suffer. "They should bury him alive in the dam," says one daughter of a deceased.
Some may say giving Mr. Killen screen time equals a bully pulpit, that it would be reckless and cheapen the heartfelt message. To the filmmakers credit they offered generous portions from both sides. By trial time the KKK bigs came to Killen's side and, while the journos were trying to get Killen to talk, he never spoke much until the judge handed down the sentence: 20 years for each death for manslaughter.
Infirmed at home or in the hospital, Killen showcased his pompousness, the filmmakers were getting the inside scoop every time. They had the goods. But their bonfire fizzled into a dormant, failed match-strike. Consequently, so much is lost in the dark.
Distributor: First Run Features
Directors/Producers: Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano
Running time: 87 min
Release date: August 13 NY