The 1964 murder of civil-rights activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney outside Philadelphia, Mississippi—the seat of Neshoba county—brought the deadly intractability of the segregated South home to many, particularly in the North. Nearly half a century later, Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano’s documentary Neshoba: The Price Of Freedom, brings it home again with determination, if not much invention.
Goodman and Schwerner, both Jewish activists from New York, met up with Chaney, a young but experienced organizer in Mississippi’s African-American community, as part of the Freedom Summer, a concerted effort to register blacks who were eligible to vote, but had been intimidated out of exercising their rights. A sheriff’s deputy helped local Klansmen lay an ambush on the outskirts of town, forcing the three to drive down a dirt road where they were shot and killed. Autopsy results revealed that Chaney was singled out for special brutality; the others were shot in the head, but his bones were broken in numerous places, and the dirt found in his nose and mouth indicated he was still breathing when his body was buried.
At the time, Goodman and Schwerner’s deaths drew the most attention. A black man’s disappearance was almost commonplace—when investigators dragged the river, they found seven bodies, none related to the case—but white Northerners were another matter. The resultant outrage was a major factor in the passage of the Voting Rights Act the following year.
Neshoba meticulously tracks down talking-head interviews with those on both sides of the tragedy, victims’ families as well as Edgar Ray Killen, an unrepentant racist found guilty of organizing the lynching party more than 40 years after the fact. But the movie gives precious little insight into what any of them are like when they aren’t talking to a camera. A handful of man-on-the-street montages provide fleeting glimpses of where local attitudes stand in the present day, but it still feels like a documentary drive-by. The insidious nature of 21st-century racism is acknowledged with a reference to Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s use of “code words,” but for the most part, Neshoba is content to treat progress as a matter of reconciling with the past rather than dealing with the present.