Here’s a weird one for you, friends — would you believe that, in 1965, drive-in audiences were served up a (somewhat) responsible treatise on race relations from the guy who directed Olga’s House Of Shame?
I know, I know — it seems highly unlikely, and yet that’s exactly what we have with Joseph P. Mawra (here working under the name of J. P. Mawra)’s regional cheapie Murder In Mississippi, and even if the region it played in might not be the one you expect, I still give this flick points for having more guts than anything the big studio machine was cranking out at the time.
Filmed in the exact same upstate New York wooded locales as the first Olga flick, it’s a fairly sold bet that, given its volatile subject matter, Mawra’s little black-and-white opus never made it south of the Mason-Dixon line, since I can’t find any archived news stories in relation to the riots and unrest it would almost certainly have triggered among racist white southerners, and while piggy-backing onto tragedy is never exactly a classy move, this flick, coming reasonably hot on the heels of the murder of civil rights volunteers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, at least has its heart in the right place and was ballsy enough to take a definite point of view on the issue — which is more than you can say for most Hollywood product at the time, which was doing its utmost to flat-out ignore the toxic reality of Jim Crow.
Fortunately for us, of course, this movie now seems an anachronistic leftover from a bygone age, since times have moved on and local law enforcement no longer unfairly targets people based solely on the color of their skin, and certainly doesn’t resort to anything like the murder of unarmed black youths under the flimsiest of pretexts — wait, scratch that, I guess nothing’s really changed at all, so let’s take a little more detailed look at this film that by all rights shouldn’t be topical any longer, but sadly still is, shall we?
Lovely UVA co-ed Carol Lee Byrd (Sheila Britt, credited here as Sheila Britton) and her racially diverse group of friends arrive in a no-name Mississippi town to register black voters when local sheriff Engstrom (Derek Crane) takes notice of the “outside agitators” (a term thought lost to time until the Ferguson chief of police recently, and shamefully, resurrected it) and warns the bunch to head back north. They don’t, so he and his deputy/brother, Bob (John Steel) and a couple of their sleazy greaseball pals kill a couple of the kids and take pretty Carol Lee hostage. Problem is, she comes from a wealthy family and her brother’s a famous New York actor, so when he comes down looking to pay his sister’s ransom, you’d think the heat would be on the racist cops, right?
There’s just one wrinkle, though — brother Dick (Richard Towers) is a sell-out phony who could care less about civil rights and is happy to let the black folks of Mississippi keep suffering as long as he gets his sister back in one piece and she agrees to give up all this foolish nonsense and go back to school. Along the way, the crackers’ kidnapping scheme goes pear-shaped, Mawra and screenwriter/producer Herbert S. Altman spend a long time intimating that one of the greasy, chicken-chompin’ honkies might decide to rape Carol Lee while she’s in captivity, and once she escapes, one of her black friends is castrated (in long, drawn-out, entirely unconvincing fashion) by the good ole boys once they run their fleeing quarry down.
As events progress we’re treated to some truly atrocious night shoot filming that’s so damn poorly lit that it’s well nigh impossible to make out what’s happening, but at the end of the day the FBI finally shows up, everyone is brought in front of a federal Civil Rights Commissioner, and it seems all will be well — until the commissioner turns out to be completely in the pocket of Engstrom and suddenly the prospect of he and his co-defendants getting off scott-free appears to be very real indeed.
Not so fast, though, lovers of truth, justice, and equality — with two out in the bottom of the ninth and things looking beyond bleak for our courageous freedom marchers, Mawra and Altman pull a happy ending out of their ass that’s downright whiplash-inducing in its suddenness, complete with stock footage of LBJ himself addressing the nation! It’s incongruous in the extreme, to say the least, and enough to make the average white southerner circa 1965 positively hurl in their popcorn, but rest assured that after numerous trials and tribulations, the good guys do win — even if it sure doesn’t look like they’re going to with less than two minutes to go.
For that reason alone, as well as its attempt to tackle head-on topics that the major studios of the day were treating like an electrified third rail, Murder In Mississippi is well worth your time, despite the fact that its production values are uniformly shoddy, even by regional exploitation film standards. In my book, you needn’t be perfect if you’re at least willing to be brave, and this is a surprisingly brave piece of movie-making, especially considering who was behind the whole thing.
For those interested in having a look at this fairly realistic account of just how goddamn bad things were in the segregated south, Something Weird Video has paired it on DVD the similarly-themed Black Rebels on an extras-heavy “special edition” disc, but our good friends at The Movie And Music Network also have made it available for streaming online, and readers of this site can watch it for free by following the link underneath the poster at the top of this review. I can only hope that there are some enterprising young filmmakers out there who are working on similar projects today based on events in places like Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York, and that 50 years from now we can look back at their efforts and be positively shocked and appalled at how certain members of our law enforcement community continued to treat people of color nearly a half-century after Jim Crow supposedly ended.