Cameras on the Prize: Hollywood Finds the Movement

By HRW

Vol. 10, No. 4, 1988, p. 20

Maybe Philadelphia, Miss., wasn't quite ready to host a movie fictionalizing its painful history, but elsewhere in the South, cameras have been rolling recently as the civil rights movement begins to join the peace movement and the Vietnam war on the silver screen.

The little town of LaFayett, Ala., rolled out the red dirt this summer for the filming of "Mississippi Burning," in which Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe portray FBI agents investigating the murders of three unnamed civil rights activists, obviously based on the 1964 Philadelphia murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.

LaFayette allowed its streets to be covered with dirt and its storefronts, some of which had not changed anyway, to be returned to a 1960s look. Many of its citizens, black and white, lined up for roles as extras in the film. If they were uncomfortable with the subject matter, it was usually not obvious.

"Heart of Dixie," based on a novel by Anne Rivers Siddon, is about conflicts over integration of Southern colleges and is being filmed at the University of Mississippi, where federal troops had to be called in to quell riots in 1962. "Everybody's All-American" is being produced in Louisiana and depicts the adventures of a black man who becomes a civil rights activist in the 1950s, battles through the '60s, and by 1980 has entered mainstream politics. Still another film, "Mississippi Summer," directly depicts Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, though if focuses on the friendship between Schwerner and Chaney whereas "Mississippi Burning" tells the story through the eyes of the FBI agents. And Jessica Lange is set to portray-in "The Stick Wife," based on a play by Darrah Cloud-the wife of a KKK member who took part in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

All of these Hollywood productions follow the success of the extraordinary documentary, "Eyes on the Prize," which has been seen by millions on public television and on videocassettes. Producers say enough time has passed that people now want to re-examine the events of the 1950s and 1960s. Others say they sense a revival of the spirit of protest and rebellion.