Watching Dad watch a curious document of one of the darkest days of the Civil Rights era, Joseph Mawra’s 1965 Murder in Mississippi
By David Dennis Jr.
Reading time 15 Minutes
It took my dad, David Dennis, Sr. exactly 33 seconds
It took my dad, David Dennis, Sr. exactly 33 seconds of watching Murder In Mississippi before yelling “This is bullshit!” and about 33 minutes before he begged me to turn it off so his night wouldn’t devolve into intermittent fits of rage.
I received a link to Joseph Mawra’s 1965 film a few days after Christmas while I was still at my father’s house in Summerville, South Carolina for the holidays. The movie was presented to me as an exploitation flick loosely inspired by the real-life 1964 murders of Civil Rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. My father was the field secretary for the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) and, along with Bob Moses, had conceived the Mississippi Freedom Summer project that brought students from across the country to the state in order to register African Americans to vote.
The three men had come to Neshoba County to investigate the bombing of Mt. Zion church. They were arrested heading back from their investigation. That night, they were murdered and their bodies were buried, hidden from the world as a weeks-long investigation into their whereabouts captivated the nation – largely because Goodman and Schwerner were white men.
My father, 23 years old at the time, was supposed to be in the car with them when they were killed. However, he had a bad case of bronchitis and was coughing all through their planning meeting. Chaney and Schwerner insisted that he stay behind. My father’s most famous movement moment came from an impassioned, angry eulogy for James Chaney. Fifty-five years later, he is haunted by their deaths.
That's why I was hesitant to show him Murder In Mississippi in the first place. I am always worried about making him relive the most traumatic moments of his life. But it was clear early on that the movie would do little to send him back to those days in any meaningful way.
Which brings me to the “bullshit.”
My Dad and I sat in his indoor porch, huddled around my laptop while the rest of our family shuffled about the kitchen making plates of turkey and lamb. He had a glass of wine in his hand, as he usually does when I corner him for an interview about the movement. The opening credits rolled and I could feel the steam coming out of his ears.
Murder In Mississippi begins with a road trip. The camera follows a convertible carrying two black men, a black woman, a white man and a white woman from Virginia down to Mississippi. That’s where the bullshit comes in. Later we learn that the five people in the car are dramatized versions of students coming to register voters like those who came to Mississippi for Freedom Summer.
“There’s no damn way any black folks would be riding down to Mississippi in a convertible with a white woman. That’s a death wish. It’s bullshit. No one would be caught dead doing that. It’s ahistorical from the very beginning!”
While that may sound like a minuscule detail to some, ignoring the ways black people circumvented death that greeted them at every turn is a basic understanding any director must have to truly capture life in the south in the ‘60s. Anything less is doing a disservice to the dangers these men and women faced simply by living in Mississippi.
“You don’t have to keep watching,” I told my Dad at that 33-minute mark of the movie. “But I gotta keep watching it for this story.”
“Good,” my Dad said as he got up, wine glass in his hand, and walked back into his house where a house full of family members were waiting.
It's apparent that director Joseph P. Mawra thought he was doing a societal good
It's apparent that director Joseph P. Mawra thought he was doing a societal good by making Murder In Mississippi. He just comes up short in his goal. The movie follows five activists through their voter registration efforts in the South while being harassed by local Sheriff Engstrom and his underlings (sans southern accents). The movie takes its cue from the real-life murders early on when Carol, the white woman, Tyrone, the black man, and Bernie the Jewish man (or "Carol Lee Byrd and her two friends,” as IMDB tellingly describes them) are taken into custody. When Engstrom tries to force Tyrone and Bernie to sign confessions for local crimes, assaulting Tyrone in the process, Bernie lunges after one of the cops. A struggle breaks out and Bernie is shot. Tyrone reacts with a histrionic diatribe about “white devils” before he’s choked to death by more police. All while Carol screams in the background. And much like the three workers in Mississippi a year prior, the bodies of Tyrone and Bernie are buried. Hidden from the rest of the world.
I knew there would be some sort of reenactment of the Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner murders, so I was a bit nervous making my Dad watch it all. Luckily for us, the scene – as is the case with the rest of the movie – is rendered so comically bad that it nullifies any intended emotional impact. When the police beat up another activist minutes earlier in the film, my Dad actually laughed. Punches don't come close to making any contact. Grunts and signs of pain don't sound like any actual sounds humans make. Erratic close-ups of faces that look like they’re in mid-cardiac arrest are painful to look at. This speaks to the overall poor execution of the film, the scenes look like they’re shot in one take fully equipped with stumbles and forgotten lines. A scene involving a local family being persuaded to register to vote looks like a home video of middle schoolers asked to recite lines from a play they had just been handed 45 seconds before the camera rolls.
Action scenes, of which there are quite a few, use actors’ backs to obscure the actual fights so as to not force anyone to undertake the task of actual choreography. But again, Mawra does try, which is more that can be said for far too many moviemakers who attempt portraying racial violence. For instance, Carol’s life is spared, because she is a white woman – a white woman related to a judge and actor at that – and her going missing would bring unwanted attention to the missing Civil Rights workers.
The sentiment echoes that of Rita Bender (then Schwerner), the 22-year-old wife of Mickey Schwerner, who became a national figure during the search for the bodies. “If [Mickey] and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths,” she said in a statement to the press shortly after Mickey’s body had been found. “After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded.” So the notion of white privilege saving white lives in Murder In Mississippi is firmly grounded in reality. The problem with Mawra’s approach, however, is that the movie focuses far too much on the white female character. In fact, the entire movie is really about Carol while black pain is merely a vehicle to drive her own reactions and suffering.
“This is like ‘Birth of a Nation’.” My Dad said it before getting up to refill his wine glass
“This is like ‘Birth of a Nation.’” My Dad said it before getting up to refill his wine glass, never to return to the patio. While the revolutionary 1915 movie by D.W. Griffith is all about upholding white supremacist ideals and demonizing black men, ostensibly making it diametrically opposed to the message of Murder In Mississippi, the two movies share a narrative thread: everything revolves around the bodies of white women.
Birth of a Nation and Murder In Mississippi are two sides to the same coin. The former is all about the way in which black men victimize white women and how it’s the white man’s duty to protect his prized possessions from deadly freedmen. The movie led to a renewed fervor for lynchings in America and KKK membership. The central mission, though, was preserving the almighty sanctity of the white woman. Murder In Mississippi is also wholly focused on a white woman and the risk she poses for black people. She is the fulcrum of the action, and her desirability becomes everyone’s motivation.
When the sheriff finds out Carol is in Mississippi, he’s told how “pretty” she is. Later in the movie, after she convinces the killers to let her live, she’s taken to a shed and held as a sex slave. Finally, when another black activist frees her from her prison, the two start making out in the woods – with no prior indication that there was ever any attraction in the first place. It’s just assumed that her natural sex appeal is enough to entice any man. They couldn’t resist having sex with each other right there in the woods, where the white men catch them and castrate the black man.
The castration occurs about an hour into the movie. The black man screaming is the last black voice we hear in the movie. The rest of the movie is about the trauma Carol faces and her resolve to save the black people of Mississippi from oppression. No black person shows up after the castration until a group of black women walk behind Carol on her way to register to vote mere seconds before the final credits roll. That is, the final 15 minutes of a movie about the Civil Rights movement pass without a single black speaker.
It’d be easy to point at Murder In Mississippi as a relic of how race relations were treated just a year after the murders took place – in the time before the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was signed, and several years before Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated. However, Murder In Mississippiisn’t a sign of a time past. It's just one in a long list of films that place a white character at the heart of black suffering. It's a trope that persists and even thrives in 2019, garnering box office and Oscar season success.
The Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner murders were reenacted a quarter century after Murder In Mississippi in the controversial and poorly-received 1988 Mississippi Burning. That movie uses the murders merely to tell a story of white FBI agents uncovering the conspiracy to kill the three men. That tale is just as fictional as Murder In Mississippi.
Then there are movies like 2011’s The Help and 2009’s The Blind Side, both ostensibly about black suffering – black women domestic workers and a homeless black kids, both based on true stories – but both focusing on the white women, placing them at the center of the stories. They’re part of a “white savior” trope that has plagued Hollywood forever. Put those movies in black and white and the messages they convey would be identical to the message of Murder In Mississippi.
Earlier this year, Green Book, a whitewashed, black-erased movie about racial reconciliation that only appeals to white audiences, was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Picture. When the winners were announced, two black actors took the stage drowned out by about a dozen white men and women who directed, wrote and produced the movie. Green Book is about preserving stories that make whiteness shine at the expense of blackness.
I walked back into my Dad’s house after watching Murder In Mississippi, frustrated by what I had just seen and worried that I’d ruined his night by making him watch someone treat his real-life trauma so cruelly. Instead, he was holding court, a full glass of wine in his hand, laughing and challenging everyone to a card game called 5000. Later that night I’d apologize to him for the movie.
“It’s fine, son. At this point it doesn’t bother me for long. I’m so damn used to it by now. I just laugh. And keep my wine glass filled.”
David Dennis Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the Internet.