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“Neshoba” Co-Director Micki Dickoff: “Justice, Reconciliation, and Healing”

"Neshoba" Co-Director Micki Dickoff: "Justice, Reconciliation, and Healing"

Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano’s “Neshoba: The Price of Freedom,” which won several best documentary awards at regional festivals throughout the U.S. will get a theatrical release in New York and LA beginning this Friday at New York’s Cinema Village. A Los Angeles and Pasadena release will follow in September. The film’s synopsis from the film’s distributor, First Run Features: “In 1964, a mob of Klansmen murdered three civil rights workers in the small Mississippi county of Neshoba (a crime that came to be known as the “Mississippi Burning” murders). These young men, two Jews from New York and an African-American from Mississippi, were in the Deep South helping register African-American voters during what became known as “Freedom Summer.” Although the Klansmen bragged about what they did, no one was held accountable until 2005, when the State indicted the mastermind of the killings, Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old Baptist preacher and notorious racist. ‘Neshoba: The Price of Freedom’ tells the story of these three American heroes and the Mississippi County still divided over the meaning of justice 40 years after their murders. The film takes an unflinching look at ordinary citizens struggling to find peace with their town’s violent, racist past in today’s America.” indieWIRE spoke to co-director Dickoff in anticipation of the film’s theatrical release.

Dickoff’s journey to filmmaking…

I went to college in the mid-1960’s where I started out in social-political theater where we did plays about civil rights and the Vietnam war. After receiving my BA in Theatre Directing in 1969, I continued on to graduate school in Film as the only woman in the Directing Program at the University of Florida. I made a short anti-war film featuring Richard Nixon that screened on the local PBS channel, I got so many protest calls that I knew immediately film was the medium to reach and influence larger audiences. I passionately believe in the power of film to touch hearts, move audiences and motivate change. I’ve been doing that for 35 years, making films about ordinary people struggling with AIDs, the justice system and civil rights. In 1987, I made a documentary which for the first time humanized the AIDS crisis from the view point of mothers losing children. That film “Too Little, Too Late” won many awards, including an Emmy, and many film festivals, and was the catalyst for me moving to Los Angeles. I wanted to reach larger audiences and make narrative films on the themes of my prior documentaries. My narrative films include the award-winning short feature “Mother, Mother,” made through the volunteer efforts of the Hollywood film community, including Piper Laurie, Polly Bergen and Henry Mancini; followed by “Our Sons” an ABC television film that I co-produced, starring Julie Andrews, Ann-Margret and Hugh Grant based on my documentary “Too Little, Too Late.” In 1996, I directed and produced “In the Blink of An Eye” an ABC television movie starring Mimi Rogers and Veronica Hamel, based on a true story about my childhood friend Sunny Jacobs who was wrongly convicted of murder. I then turned my attention to the death penalty/justice system and went to Texas to make two documentaries, “Bush’s Deadly Ambition,” and “Step By Step: A Journey of Hope.”

On coming to the story at the heart of “Neshoba”…

I was 17 in 1964 and wanted to go to Freedom Summer to register Black voters. My father, who grew up in the Mississippi Delta in the only Jewish family in town, would not let me go. When James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were murdered, it haunted me my whole life and influenced my politics and art. When I received a phone call from Ben Chaney in 1999, asking me to make a film about the “Mississippi Burning” murders, I jumped at the chance. I began the project which was envisioned to follow Ben Chaney confronting his brother’s murderers and shaming the State of Mississippi into seeking murder charges against the men. The project came to a halt when Ben’s mother grew concerned about her only son’s safety. The film then sat on the back burner for the next 5 years. I grew very close to Ben and Carolyn Goodman and with the 40th anniversary approaching, and Carolyn in her late 80’s, I knew the film had to be made, now or never. I pitched the film idea to my life-long friend Tony Pagano, an award-winning Director of Photography, to partner with me. After more than 20 trips to Mississippi, and 6 years in the making, the film began the film festival circuit as we continued to raise money to purchase the archival footage and music rights and do the fine cut edit.

Dickoff’s approach to the film…

The themes of justice, reconciliation and healing run through all my films. When I learned about the Philadelphia Coalition, Blacks and whites for the first time in 40 years, coming together to demand justice in the murders, I had found the hook and knew I wanted to follow this group. We started shooting at the 40th anniversary in June 2004, having no idea that 10 months later, Preacher Edgar Ray Killen would be indicted or that we would have exclusive access to him for the first time ever. We wanted to be there on the scene to show the process of justice in action, ordinary people making a difference, the affect on Neshoba County, the influence of outsiders, and to see how race relations have or have not evolved since the murders. It was important for us not to make Killen the ultimate villain, although he did a villainous thing, but rather to show he did not act alone, that in addition to the other 20-plus Klansmen involved in the conspiracy to murder these civil rights workers, the white community leaders, all the way to a United States Senator, were complicit. Killen was a product of his times and his community. These good white folks patted Killen and his ilk on the back, with a wink and a nod, and allowed them to get away with murder for 40 years. Only a handful of whites stood up against the Klan in 1964, and in 2004, the Philadelphia Coalition still faced animosity from some of their fellow citizens.

Dickoff on the filmmakers’ biggest challenges…

Money. We found that so many people today don’t remember these three American heroes, that we felt we needed to set up the historic context of the story with archival footage and music. The cost to purchase these rights kept us working on the movie for two years after the rough cut was finished. Thank goodness the Andrew Goodman Foundation helped us raise money through the entire six year journey and acted as our fiscal sponsor.

The other major challenge was keeping Killen on board through the end of his trial for murder. There was so much media at the trial from all over the world, and all of them wanted to get to Killen. No one knew he was cooperating with us since right after his indictment. We had made inroads in all the very different parts of Neshoba County, where attitudes about bringing justice in this case ranged from, “let sleeping dogs lie,” to a desire to bring to trial all the murderers who were still alive. Neshoba County folks are still divided about justice in this case.

Audiences and the film…

We’ve seen audience reaction in the two years on the film festival circuit. We have seen the most provocative and meaningful discussions about race and the rocky road to healing and reconciliation, and how much still needs to be done in our country. Most audiences react positively to seeing this ugly part of American history come full circle and reach some resolution. Many audiences are moved to want to start “Philadelphia Coalitions” in their own communities.

On inspirations…

I have always been inspired by Barbara Kopple’s films, and the way she immerses herself in the communities that are the subjects of her films, in her search for telling the truth.

Future projects for Dickoff…

I’m working on a new film called “The Legacy” about an African American family mired in generational poverty, caught up in the criminal justice system (often unjustly) and apparently, so far unable to break the cycle. The patriarch of the family, Gary Graham, aka Shaka Sankofa, was wrongly convicted of murder and executed in Texas, leaving his children and grandchildren to live with this tragic legacy. I’ve made two films about Gary Graham, one in 1993 and one in 2000, trying to expose the truth about his case . I’ve been personally involved with his children and now his grandchildren for 17 years, and have shot footage of them all growing up. Now, the film will focus on this generation and whether they can break the cycle of poverty and violence that surrounds them.

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