Neshoba (2008) is a documentary film about the brutal slayings of civil rights workers which inspired the film, Mississippi Burning. I saw this film while attending the Oxford Film Festival this past weekend in lovely Oxford, Mississippi.
I’ll start off by writing that by and large the movie was awesome. I was brought to tears on a couple occasions and it seems to paint an accurate picture of the film’s main subject, Edgar Ray Killin – the 80 something former Baptist preacher and brutal racist who was ultimately tried and convicted for being the ring-leader of the 1964 incident. The film meanders from archival interviews and photography to present day interviews with family members of the slained individuals, Neshoba county residents, politicians, and members of the Philadelphia Coalition – a multicultural truth commision if you will, that seeks to bring healing to the small central Mississippi town.
There are a couple of facets of the film I question however:
Aesthetically speaking, the choice to use a 4:3 vs a 16:9 or the more cinematic 2.39:1 aspect ratio for the film. I think this decision may hurt the film’s chances of gaining wider distribution.
More importantly however is that I feel the film suffered from some insinuation problems. In particular, there was unsubstantiated insinuation that the reason it took 40 years to bring someone to justice, and the reason why the buck stopped with Edgar Ray Killen rather than following up the money/power trail is that there is some complicity high up within the Mississippi political landscape. This sentiment was echoed by the director during a question and answer segment following the screening. The movie even implies that current Mississippi Governor, Haley Barbour, is somehow involved.
Does the film outright say that the Mississippi political elites are somehow responsible or connected to the 1964 crime? No. Does the film outright dispell this after planting the seed? No again. Is there any harm in drawing tangential and mildly spurious connections? Most often I would say no. Its at the director’s and producer’s discretion how far they wish to sway the viewer.
Playing loose with such large connections is problematic as it reminds me of how the Bush administration insinuated that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks. This isn’t responsible. At its most severe, its alarmist and mildly offensive to one’s intelligence.
Without any hard proof, or a willingness to really dig and bring up some better connections, I feel removing this large scale conspiracy storyline from the film would lend a more empirical sense to the documentary.
That being said – I wholeheartedly recommend anyone who has a chance go see this film. Its a heartwrenching piece of American history and what is being done today in Philadelphia, Mississippi is truly a beautiful thing.