The very fact that Murder in Mississippi exists

White upset in Murder in Mississippi.

The very fact that Murder in Mississippi exists in and of itself is all kinds of crazy. Maybe even newsworthy. The idea that less than a year after three Civil rights workers had been killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi, a movie would dare to explore this fresh wound, is brave, or crazy, or both. More than that, the fact that the filmmaker to take it on would be a mysterious low-budget Buñuel whose body of work up to then had not exactly exhibited a social conscience – that, too, is many levels of nuts.

Today, at the far end of the telescope, there is another weird fact to ponder: why don’t we know about Murder in Mississippi? Why haven’t writers celebrated the fact that a deep-quirk auteur working far off the grid made a film about the most important issue in the country in 1965: that domestic terrorists were waging war on those who believed in equality for all?

Before we look at one obvious answer to that question, let’s look at America in 1965.

People were getting killed for trying to sign other people up to exercise their legal right to vote. Little girls were dying in church fires because they were black, and because the churches were meeting places for the civil rights movement. It was in the news, but in public people talked about such things with guarded care. Hollywood wasn’t going to touch the subject in any meaningful way. “Issues,” as they were called back then, divided audiences – that was the thinking, and a divided audience minimized profits. Some issues, as well, could get a movie banned in the South and a theater blown up.

Joseph Mawra, the director of Murder in Mississippi, had more than a few issues of his own, the kind he’d put on display in the four Olga films that established his reputation (Olga’s House of Shame, White Slaves of Chinatown, Olga’s Girls, and Mme. Olga’s Massage Parlor, between 1964 and 1965). They pancake as many deviant ideas as popped into his head on a given day of shooting, of which there weren’t too many. The Olga movies follow around a drug-selling, whip-twisting, bondage-demanding, bordello boss as she does many, many nasty things to hot-looking young women. They are as electrifying and educational as a great Cramps song, and feature about the same amount of social commentary.

In the one interview Mawra ever seems to have done, the filmmaker sounds like a load, a plodder, an overworked grunt who can’t remember a lot of the details that fans watching his films have never forgotten. He definitely doesn’t see what he did as art or a cause, and while he could recollect anecdotes about making the Olga pictures, Mawra would barely admit to anything regarding Murder in Mississippi.

“My memory isn’t good for that one,” he said. “It was another one made on a shoestring budget, and we had to finish it in a few days.” That’s it, folks: move along now.

The person who undoubtedly could tell us something more about the making of Murder, if he is still among us, would be the film’s producer-writer, Herbert S. Altman. If Mawra comes across in his interview (misleadingly!) as a guy who could be selling shoes, Altman seems like a high-flyer. Literally: he’d been a pilot in World War II, and after leaving the Air Force, Altman flew planes he flew planes for Howard Hughes. He said he also shot scenes for films Hughes made with Jane Russell, and perhaps from that experience he got the movie bug.

Altman believed in causes, like the first amendment fights that consumed comic Lenny Bruce’s final years. Altman made a heartfelt and cheapo biopic, Dirtymouth, lionizing Bruce’s life. He also claimed to have worked on a documentary about David Ben-Gurion, the primary founder of Israel.

Mawra called Altman “an attorney” in the interview, but there’s not a lot of reason to think he practiced law. What is clear is that Altman was a hardass with a naïve desire to make a difference.

Though not all the details of the three murders in Neshoba County, Mississippi, were known when Altman was writing his screenplay, and though in fact one of the perpetrators, Edgar Ray Killen, was only charged 41 years later, the essential facts were clear enough in 1965 to make a compelling document for anybody who simply dared to dramatize them. Mawra and Altman, however, had both simpler and more complicated ambitions: they wanted to wildly entertain viewers with their own ideas. In the end they trip over themselves trying to make a suspense film, a critique of southern racism, and a Times Square movie which might provide all the requisite thrills Mawra was expected to deliver. That’s a tall order for anyone, let alone a team filming in New Jersey for less than a week.

One electrifying, all but impossible to watch scene

One electrifying, all but impossible to watch scene from Murder defines their dilemma: when word gets out that a black activist and a white women are meeting in the woods, two crackers and their dogs chase them through the swamp, hold the black man down and castrate him with a polished dagger that Mawra makes sure we see gleaming in the sunlight. It seems to go on an hour if a minute, and one thing that makes it so hard to watch is that Mawra’s getting excited, or maybe losing himself, and turning the interracial sex and the torture into kicks.

It was a very Mawra moment. Many people go through life daydreaming about what they really want to do while they drift down this other path that the world of responsibility puts before them. But Mawra was a lucky man, who seems to have stumbled into doing the very work he was put on this earth to do: deliver delirious cheap thrills to filmgoers. He must have been a very happy, very bruised, man.

The best Mawra movies completely bypass your conscience and go straight for more illicit regions of the cerebral cortex. Now here he was with the camera on, trying to say something that might affect the consciences of white America. Too many wires cross, sparks shooting everywhere.

His own thought processes, it would seem, frequently went straight to the dungeons, first sleazing up the interracial sex, depicted as something lurid and thus undercutting the idea that it should not be punished. Then, the castration itself, which would all too comfortably play out as a scene in Mondo or horror movie. Murder starts out as an attempt to shock the conscience with the truth of what’s going on in the South, but it turns into a more familiar kind of shock, peeping into bedrooms while a filthy saxophone plays.

“I’m not really a writer-director-producer,” Altman said in a 1970 interview. “But when I can’t get the right writer or the right director who’ll do it the way I think it should be done I usually wind up doing it myself.” Give him this: he believed in his vision. Mawra, too, had a vision, one vision, and it was perfect for depicting things that could not be explained, but not so good at explaining things that had just happened, and would keep on happening, from Mississippi to Ferguson, Missouri and beyond. The film Altman and Mawra made, in the end, is a feverish footnote. And maybe that’s enough.




RJ Smith is author of American Witness, a biography of filmmaker and photographer Robert Frank, and The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. He is currently at work on a biography of Chuck Berry. Smith lives in Chicken Corner, California.

Quotes from Joseph Mawra courtesy: Whatever Happened To Joseph Mawra? The Man Who Created Olga, online interview, The Rialto Report.