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Two Civil Rights Movies Find the Cost of Freedom

Bran Nue Dae and Neshoba, The Price of Freedom

I recently reviewed two plays that had Civil Rights themes, The Good Negro and Carry It On! Now two films have opened on the same day in L.A. that both deal with Black liberation struggles. The two works are stylistically and geographically poles apart but united by a common theme.

Bran Nue Dae

Neshoba, The Price of Freedomis a straightforward documentary that tells the story of the brutal 1964 slayings of the three Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. This nonfiction treatment is far more convincing than Alan Parker’s 1988 Mississippi Burningstarring Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe and Frances McDormand, whichgives the same murders the Hollywood treatment, making FBI agents the heroes. (The notion that J. Edgar Hoover and his G-Men, who surveilled Martin Luther King, perpetrated cointelpro, etc., were the Sir Lancelots of the Civil Rights movement is a bizarre form of science fiction.)

Neshoba also goes far beyond the original homicides carried out by Southern redneck racists in order to intimidate those campaigning for voter registration of what were then called “Negroes,” integration and other equal rights initiatives. News clips, archival footage and the like are effectively, if conventionally, deployed to present a record of what happened in this hotbed of Klansmen and “segregation now and forever” advocates. The doc, co-directed by Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano, shows us how these horrific crimes affected members of the victims’ families, as well as the townspeople at that other Philadelphia in Mississippi, a city of un-brotherly hatred.

neshoba, the price of freedom

But best of all, Neshoba follows efforts to try Edgar Ray Killen, the segregationist preacher long believed to be the lynch mob’s mastermind, 41 years after the despicable crime was committed, as the long arm of the law tries to finally catch up with the racists’ ringleader. Will justice be rendered? Maybe, but while the doc permits some reconciliation and even jubilation, it ends on an unsettling note, reminding us how many of the purported perpetrators of the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner murders who are still alive are Scott free.

Even worse, during the doc’s ending I counted the names of around 87 “disappeared” participants in the Civil Rights movement who did not have the notoriety of that famed, doomed trio, whose murders have never been solved and whose killers have never been brought to justice. In Neshoba Chaney’s mother notes that if her Black son’s murdered comrades were not white, James Chaney would have never received so much media, government and public attention.

A few comments: In the doc Killen and perhaps some other reactionaries accuse the families of Goodman and/or Schwerner of being “communists.” But the film never follows this up, although some of their relatives appear onscreen. Because if it is true, it would only indicate what a mighty fine thing this communism stuff must be, to raise such noble sons who laid their lives down so others could be free.

Contrary to co-director Dickoff’s statement in the press notes claiming, “James, Andy and Mickey… died so Barack Obama could be elected president.” Oh really? I don’t think they had such paltry ambitions. These three freedom fighters may have wanted to register Blacks to vote and for African Americans to be able to hold high office, including the presidency, but Obama was around three years old when they died; I seriously doubt that they knew him. Furthermore, I also doubt that these three apostles of nonviolence would have given up their lives for a militaristic president like Obama, a tool of the military industrial complex, who retained Bush’s Secretary of Defense, escalated the Afghan War, raised the Pentagon’s budgets, failed to close Guantanamo, deploys drones on civilians, and so on. Of course, I can’t speak for these three martyrs – but neither can Dickoff.

One other thing: For some reason Neshoba never mentions the fact that in 1980 Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign at Philadelphia, Mississippi. Although Reagan managed not to mention the infamous triple homicide there, he did use the racially charged term “states’ rights” in order to pursue a Nixon-esque Southern strategy. This deliberate affront was intended to send a racist signal to reactionary America; mourning in America and Mississippi burning, indeed.

In any case, Neshoba, The Price of Freedom is a documentary about a powerful subject and well worth seeing. Especially by those too young to actually remember the original events; and for those who can, the follow-up as to what happened years later in pursuit of justice makes this a riveting, satisfying cinematic experience.

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It’s interesting and sad to note that although it takes place half a world away, and is a musical rather than a documentary, Bran Nue Daeis similar to Neshoba,as it deals with the struggle of Black people in the 1960s. While the European settlers enslaved and imported Blacks to work in the Americas, Australia’s European settlers discovered Black people called Aborigines already living in what white Aussies erroneously called “Terra nullius” – or “empty land” or “land belonging to no one.” But of course this continent had already been inhabited for thousands of years by the time whitey showed up in 1606 and the British conquered and colonized it not long after the American Revolution. Although their skins are black, since they are the original inhabitants of what is now called Australia, Aborigines also have much in common with what we call Native Americans or American Indians.

In any case, in film history much has been made of various national motion picture trends – the French New Wave, Italian Neo-realism, the British kitchen sink and angry young man dramas and so on. Although I don’t believe it’s very widely commented upon, Australian cinema also has its own cinematic sensibility, filmic flair, etc., demonstrated by imaginative Aussie-born directors such as Peter Weir’s 1977 Aborigine-themed The Last Wave, 1981’s Gallipoli, the flawless 1982 The Year of Living Dangerously, 1985’s Witness; Bruce Beresford’s 1980 Breaker Morant, 1986 Aborigine-themed The Fringe Dwellers; 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, aBest Picture Oscar Winner, 2009’s Mao’s Last Dancer; George Miller’s Mad Max movies; Fred Schepisi’s Aborigine-themed 1978 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; Stephan Elliott’s 1994 The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; John Hillcoat’s 2005 The Proposition, which recently screened at the Turner Classic Movies Filmfest in L.A.; et al.

What could be called a subset of the Australian New Wave are films by Aborigines, such as Tracey Moffatt. Now add to that category Bran Nue Dae, which has a distinctively Aboriginal aesthetic, sensibility and Pacific pedigree. According to press notes, part-Aborigine writer Jimmy Chi from Broome is primarily responsible for creating Bran Nue Dae as a theatrical musical in 1990. Chi shares screenwriting credit with Aboriginal director Rachel Perkins (1998’s Radiance) and Reg Cribb. The cast includes many indigenous Australians: the winning Rocky McKenzie as Willie; the charming Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy as Rosie; Ningali Lawford-Wolf as Theresa (who appeared in 1992’s heartbreaking Rabbit-Proof Fence by one of Australia’s best directors, Phillip Noyce); and Ernie Dingo (1987’s Crocodile Dundee II) as the rapscallion Tadpole. The most famous actor in Bran Nue Dae is the white Aussie Best Actor Oscar winner for 1996’s Shine, Geoffrey Rush, who plays a repressive priest in Bran Nue Dae.

Dan Sultan and Jessica Mauboy in Bran Nue Dae

Dan Sultan and Jessica Mauboy in Bran Nue Dae

Rush’s Father Benedictus has great faith in Willie, his star pupil at a religious school in Perth in 1969. But Willie prefers the more carefree, natural life at Broome and pines for Rosie; whitey’s ways are not for he. As Willie escapes Bran Nue Dae becomes a raucous rollicking road picture. Along the way he encounters hippies, Tadpole, Theresa and has various picaresque adventures on the road from Perth to Broome, with Benedictus hot on his trail. It is a sort of more lighthearted version of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, writer/director Abe Polonsky’s drama starring Robert Blake as the rebellious, eponymous Indian.

Bran Nue Dae has vibrant music, dancing and broad comedy that may seem to U.S. audiences to be at times over the top. But I just went with it, enjoyed the different sensibility, laughed and had a good time. Perhaps this is because my Polynesian daughter Marina lives at Brisbane and I’ve visited “Oz” several times. In any case, it’s hard not to like “Black is beautiful” lyrics such as: “There’s nothing I’d rather be than an Aborigine.” Yes, Willie is Black, and he’s proud, as well he should be. By the time the movie comes to its dazzling, dizzying grand finale, we find out who is really related to whom in a delightful commentary on the family of man. Yes indeedy, Bran Nue Dae’s humanitarian, embracing ethos harkens a Brand New Day.

From South Africa to America to Australia, Blacks have endured, and overcome, apartheid, a testament to the human spirit. From that bigoted preacher Edgar Ray Killen in sweltering Mississippi to Geoffrey Rush’s Perth bible thumper to that maniacal cracker Koran burner pastor in Florida, those who’d impose white supremacy have long been with us. If you substitute the words “gay” or “Islamic” or “illegal alien” in today’s over-heated rhetoric about banning same sex marriage and mosques near Ground Zero, Temecula, Kentucky, or persecuting immigrants, etc., you can hear the same old tired racism that historically has been directed against African Americans and Australian Aborigines.

The bigotry is the same; just the names of the victims of discrimination du jour are different. As LGBT-ers, Muslims, Guatemalans and other immigrants struggle for their equal rights in 2010 America, the documentary Neshoba and musical Bran Nue Dae remind us of how far we’ve come – and, like Willie en route from Perth to Broome – how far we still have to go before we overcome and that Brand New Day of equality dawns.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based freelance writer and author of Progressive Hollywood.