The arm of justice proves very long indeed in "Neshoba," which recounts efforts to retry the ringleader behind the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, four decades later.

The arm of justice proves very long indeed in “Neshoba,” which recounts efforts to retry the ringleader behind the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, four decades later. Accused Edgar Ray Killen’s surprising cooperation with the film — which doesn’t flatter him at all — and some townspeople’s lingering indifference make this a disturbing peek at how little some people have changed, as well as an inspiring portrait of others’ determination to see crime punished at last. Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano’s docu is unremarkable in assembly, but potent content should ensure an extended life in broadcast and educational markets.

In the extremely tense climate of 1964’s Freedom Summer, many activists working for desegregation and voter registration in the South were beaten, threatened or killed. (Pic ends with a scroll naming over 100 civil rights advocates slain or still missing.) Jewish New Yorkers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and black Mississippian James Chaney were arrested for alleged speeding in the Neshoba County burg of Philadelphia.

After paying a fine, the young men were released but immediately seized by Ku Klux Klan members. Six weeks later, after a vast search (including a Mississippi River dragging that uncovered nine other corpses), their bodies were found on property owned by KKK organizer Killen — beaten, shot and perhaps buried alive.

Under intense national pressure, seven conspirators were convicted by an all-white jury but received only wrist-slap sentences. Another eight were acquitted, and three more (including Killen) released due to a deadlocked jury.

When the events’ 40th anniversary approached, a multiethnic coalition called for 80-year-old Killen — widely believed to have planned the murders, though carefully absent when they were committed — to be tried as a form of public repentance to clear the town’s name. Though he still denied involvement, this “most well-known unrepentant racist in Mississippi” still mouthed off unchanged attitudes toward blacks, Jews and Reds.

When the new trial commenced, modern-day Klan members duly rallied outside for support. Yet even more disturbing are the film’s glimpses of numerous ordinary Philadelphia citizens who shrug that at this late point, “the past should stay buried,” etc.

The directors provide some interesting historical details, such as the ways in which government funds were once diverted to covertly fund KKK activities (including recruitment of paid black spies) and heavy Klan presence in the Philadelphia police dept.

The victim’s surviving relatives are interviewed, along with various authority figures. But undeniably, the star here is Killen, whose loathsomeness is only underlined by his sympathy-pleading claims of various (apparently faked) infirmities, not to mention the fact that he’s a longtime Baptist minister who goes by the moniker Preacher. These elements, particularly the archival ones, are riveting.

Package’s weak spot is some clumsy, unnecessary re-enactment scenes that occasionally lend the feature a routine tube-doc feel. Tech aspects are solid.

Neshoba

Production

A Pro Bono and Pagano production. Produced by Micki Dickoff, Tony Pagano. Executive producers, Pagano, Dickoff. Co-producer, Christie Webb. Directed, edited by Micki Dickoff, Tony Pagano. Written by Dickoff.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, Beta SP-to-DigiBeta), Pagano; music, Chris Davis; music supervisor, Pagano; sound, Richard Juliano, Richard Tropiano, Tom Landi. Reviewed at San Francisco Documentary Festival, Oct. 19, 2008. (Also in Boston, New York Independent, Fort Lauderdale film festivals.) Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, Ben Chaney, Carolyn Goodman, Rita Bender, Jewel McDonald, Deborah Posey, Buford Posey, Dave Dennis, Florence Mars, Jerry Mitchell.

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